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Lounge Review: No. 1 Lounge in Gatwick South Terminal

On our way back to NY from Copenhagen, we had a stopover at Gatwick South Terminal for 5 hours. The South Terminal is small and dated and also serves as a hub for British Airways at Gatwick Airport. The terminal has two levels with the usual shops and fast food restaurants…nothing particularly outstanding. There is a small Harrods’s gift shop at the terminal for last minute British gifts. The terminal itself is overcrowded. When I was there in March, it was hard to find a seat anywhere. Luckily for me, I had access to the No. 1 Lounge at the terminal. Besides the No. 1 Lounge, there is only a British Airways Lounge, thus making both venues busy like the terminal.

The No 1 Lounge’s entrance is on the second floor and located between Dixons and JD Sports. I walked through a nondescript entrance that resembled a service entrance to another set of double doors where I was greeted with a representative who was tougher than a NYC bouncer. Apparently the lounge was full around noon so I was asked to come back in 30 minutes. I did not realized at the time that you can make a reservation through No1lounges.com and get the premium security lane access. Since there are only two lounges at Gatwick, I highly recommend this option.  After putting my name down, I waited at nearby until the minute hand on the clock ticked pass 20 minutes and attempted to go into the lounge again. Luckily, the bouncer, aka representative, let me in.

Upon entering, I was impressed by the spacious interiors and modern aesthetics. There are many different seating arrangements for work and rest and even separate rooms such as a reading room and a TV room showing the latest soccer match. The lounge was not as crowded as the representative made it out to be, so I guess that is also the reason why they restrict access. After settling onto a comfy couch by the window, I ordered lunch from the a la cart menu. This lounge has made-to-order food that ensures freshness. The portions are small and can vary depending on the dish. Each guest is allowed 1 made-to-order selection. I had a lamb hotpot and my friend ordered a Caesar salad. I think these were the best in terms of portion size and taste. The food was better than your run-of-the-mill airport meal. There are drinks stations and dessert and snack options for guests, as well as a full alcohol bar where each guest can order 1 free drink. In addition, there are plenty of fashion magazines and newspapers that I was allowed to take with me.

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However, there are some negatives to this lounge. Electrical outlets are sparse and only appear to be in certain area. I ended up using my travel charger as there were no outlets around the sofa areas. There are two areas with screens showing flight information. Beyond that, you must keep track of your boarding time. The boarding time for our flight to NY was 1.5 hours earlier than what I had anticipated and I almost missed my boarding time. Additionally, I had a hard time connecting to their free Wi-Fi and the server was nice enough to give me the password for the other networks. Besides those minor issues, I would not hesitate to visit the No. 1 Lounge at Gatwick again, especially on a long layover. The experience was overall very enjoyable and a good way to unwind before the next long flight.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured Photo: Tripadvisor

Weekend Unexplored: 2 Days in Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen was the last stop on our week long Nordic trip. My group purposely scheduled Copenhagen at the end of our Iceland adventure as we wanted a balance from our rustic Icelandic adventures. We did not have anything planned out for Copenhagen besides our dining options, so the weekend was more spontaneous. Copenhagen also has a burgeoning food scene that rivals NYC in quality and innovation with two restaurants currently listed in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I was in charge of booking the restaurants and I took on the challenge with glee.

Day 1

We had an early flight from Reykavik to Copenhagen on Iceland Airlines. After an uneventful flight, we easily found a taxi and headed to Hotel Nyhaven located at the end of the picturesque Nyhaven Harbor. When we arrived around 1:00 pm, our rooms were not yet available so we left our luggage with the front desk staff. At this point, we were starving as we had been up since 6 am for our flight. My original plan was to eat lunch at Torvehallerne, a famous gourmet food hall, but it was a 15 to 20 minute taxi ride way from where we wanted to go after lunch and the beautiful harbor beckoned us to stay. We started strolling down the harbor and marveled at the charming cafes and colorful houses flanking each side of the waterway. It was also deceptively cold and windy that day, so we hustled to find a restaurant that would accommodate 6 people at the last minute. Luckily, Union Kitchen was able to seat our group right away. Union Kitchen is a hipster restaurant that has a wicked sense of humor and would fit right in with the Brooklyn crowd. Thank goodness brunch was as tasty as the cozy ambiance. My favorite moment was when I received my cappuccino with the word “Fuck It” on it…this is now my Monday morning motto.

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After lunch, we only had enough time to come back to the hotel to check into our rooms and quickly walked to Christianborg Palace before it closed. I had asked the hotel receptionist what two places we should visit while we were here and she had recommended Christianborg. The palace is where the Parliament, Supreme Court and Ministry of State currently resides in additional to being the official place for the Queen’s state duties. For the ticket price of 150.00 DKK (approximately $22), we visited the ruins, the royal kitchen and the royal stables. Unfortunately, the royal reception room was not available to the public that day. The royal stables contains the gorgeous white horses and carriages still used for all the official ceremonies. The royal kitchen is similar to most kitchens in castles that I have visited in Europe, so it was not particularly unique. The ruins were well curated showcasing the history of the rise and fall of the many iterations of the castle since 1167. The whole visit took approximately 90 minutes at a very leisurely pace.

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For dinner that night, we made a reservation at Radio where the head chef is Jesper, the former sous-chef at Noma, head chef at Restaurant MR and most recently assisting head chef at Geranium. I opted for the 5 course tasting menu for 435KK (approximately $65) that had very sparse descriptions and a few ingredients I needed to google. For example, the courses on the tasting menu were as follow:

  1. Scallops, kohlrabi, verbena
  2. Salmon, whey, pistachio
  3. Celeriac, hay cheese, sesame
  4. Pork, onions, more onions
  5. Carrots, dill, seeds

The dishes were innovative and well-executed. The most memorable dish for me was the dessert made of carrots, dill and seeds. Reading the description on the menu, I had assumed it was another vegetable dish, but it ended being an ice cream and caramelized carrot concoction. It felt like I was being cat fished but with a positive spin. The only regret I had at Radio was not trying their alcohol free drinks pairing menu to go with the five course meal. My friend had it on her previous visit and could not stop raving about it. The restaurant décor was inviting and we lingered at the restaurant for over 2 hours sipping wine and sharing stories.

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Day 2

On day 2, we woke up to a dreary, cold and damp spring day. The main attraction for us on day 2 was our reservation at noon for a gastro experience at Geranium. That only left us with 1.5 hours to explore Copenhagen before lunch. We decided on a visit to Rosenborg Castle, which houses Denmark’s crown jewels, well-preserved tapestries and interiors furnishings that span over 400 years. There was already a queue for tickets when we arrived 15 minutes prior to opening time. The ticket price was 110kr (approximately $16) per person. If you have a hand bag bigger than a very small purse, you will need to place it in a locker with a 20 kroner coin that you can get at the ticket desk.

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I started exploring the treasury in the basement of the castle where the crown jewels are stored. Even though the jewels are not as large in scale as the famous British collection, it is still a very solid exhibit that took me 20 minutes to view thoroughly. I really liked the small intimate setting as I was not overwhelmed by the abundance of the treasures. My favorite item was Christian IV’s intricate and neck breaking crown made of gold, enamel, table-cut stones and pearls. I can’t imagine having to wear that crown on top of their extraordinary ornate and heavy wardrobes.

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I then rushed to the ground floor of the castle to start my tour. Surprisingly, the tapestries, furnishing and interior decors were well preserved and organized. Maps are given out to all visitors and the whole castle can be viewed in one hour. The only negative that I can cite was the lack of description for all the artifacts. The website has in-depth information available on the rooms and key pieces but not at the actual castle. I would have welcomed an option for an audio guide to enhance the experience. Otherwise, the décor becomes just that without the historical context to support its importance in this castle.  The throne room was filled with tapestries, which caught my attention more so than the thrones and the lions flanking them. Overall, it was a nice visit to take in Danish royal history in a short period of time.

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Nearing noon, my group took a cab to Geranium for our over the top tasting menu representative of their 3 Michelin stars award and ranks one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. (Look out for our in-depth post on the experience coming soon.) The creativity, taste and service is unparalleled and worth the 2,000DKK per person (approximately $300 without drinks, tip and tax). My friend, who had been to Geranium, recommended going for lunch instead of dinner as the meal took 4 hours and the earlier time allowed for us to digest afterward.

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Source: Gleb Chuvpilo

After a long luxurious lunch, we took a cab to the Little Mermaid statue which to be fair, is not worth visiting except for the fact that it was on our way home. The small famous statue (or tourist trap) is flanked by visitors jostling for a photo opportunity. I was one of those jostlers for my 5 second photo op with the famous girl. Directly across the statue is one of the best preserved star fortresses in Northern Europe called the Citadel. Today it is a public park and has two museums and other historical monuments. The view from the Citadel’s wall affords a sweeping vista of old Copenhagen and the harbor. There were numerous families strolling around the Citadel making it a pleasant time to people watch as well. If I had more patience, this would also be a great spot for those Instagram-worthy travel shots…too bad I’m a terrible and unnatural model.

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After realizing that I had only 1 hour left before all the shops closed at 6pm, I rushed to Stoget, the city center, to do some last minute shopping. I was able to stop by Flying Tiger Copenhagen, the Danish version of IKEA for household goods. There is a smaller Flying Tiger on the upper east side of Manhattan, but this is like going on pilgrimage to the motherland and you just have to go. I arrived at the 2 story mecca and ended up with items I do not even know why I bought, but I’m sure it’ll all be useful one day. In my haste to make it to another store, I was sidetracked by the pretty window display and my bladder at Illums Bolighus, a high-end department store with effortless style and chic sensibility. I only had 20 minutes to peruse the 2 story department store and was able to buy a very expensive handmade elephant paper mobile for my niece as a last minute gift. I could have spent hours in this department store with gorgeous contemporary Danish furniture and decor. However, they literally turned the lights off on me at 6pm sharp. I found myself in the dark on the second floor and wondered if I would be locked inside here and ended up in newspaper headline, “American went missing in a dept store”. Luckily there was someone to literally shoo me down the stairs to the exit as the lights dramatically went out. They take closing time very seriously here.

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I had an hour before meeting up with my friends for dinner at Spontan, a trendy eatery by the youngest Michelin-starred head chef in Copenhagen. The restaurant also shares an open space with Brus, a new brewpub. Despite my weary feet, I walked 30 minutes from Stoget to Spontan and entered a venue filled with tall pretty people, literally dwarfing my 5 foot frame. The restaurant is mostly filled with locals meeting up with friends or on dates, so it is a perfect place to unwind and people watch. The restaurant has a playful take on gourmet food that complements the overwhelming beer choices. The beer list is literally a book. Some of the dishes were hit or miss for me, but overall it was a relaxing gourmet experience and a great way to end our short weekend in Copenhagen.

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If you are a foodie, Copenhagen is a must. The vibrant Nordic city is definitely on my revisit list just to satisfy my gluttony for innovative and satisfying food.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured Photo: Gleb Chuvpilo

Easy Fish Noodle Bowl

Noodle bowls are an obsession for the millennial generation. They are healthy, easy and relatively quick to make. Vietnam has many versions of this dish topped with grilled meats, egg rolls, etc. This is our take on the noodle bowl with simple pan fried fish filet that has been quickly marinated with a few herbs and spices. The secret to this dish is the slightly salty, sweet, tangy fish sauce. Make this for your next meal and you will not be disappointed.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 2 / Time: 30 – 45 minutes

Ingredients:

3 filet of firm white fish like tilapia or catfish

1/2 teaspoon + 3 tablespoons of fish sauce

3 tablespoons + 1/2 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

1 teaspoon of minced ginger

1 tablespoon of diced onion

2 and 1/2 tablespoons of minced garlic

1 whole clove of garlic

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of fresh lime juice

1 cup of Coco Rico coconut soda

1 diced Thai chili

1 seedless cucumber

1 handful of lettuce leaves

A handful of mint

A handful of parsley

1 package of vermicelli noodles (approximately 1 cup of noodles per person)

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Directions:

Marinate the fish filet for 15 minutes with the following ingredients: 1 tablespoon of diced onion, 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of minced ginger, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of fish sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper.

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Make the sauce by combining 3 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1 cup of coconut soda, and 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon lime juice, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of minced garlic, 1 diced Thai chili and 1 teaspoon of chili paste (optional).

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Boil vermicelli noodles according to directions and rinse with cold water when the noodles are al dente. Julienne the lettuce and cucumber.

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Heat the frying pan on high with 3 tablespoons of EVOO with 1 whole clove of garlic. The garlic will flavor the oil. Remove the garlic when it turns brown, otherwise it will burn quickly.

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Add the filet and cook each side for 5 minutes until the flesh are white and firm.

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Add noodles, lettuce, cucumber, mint and parsley to a large bowl. Place the fish on top and add the sauce. Stir to incorporate everything before consuming.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

5 Days in Iceland in March

Iceland was not high on my destination priority list as I had always imagined the country to be very cold and bleak. Ruffing it does not appeal to me, especially for a New Yorker. I was glad to be proven wrong for once! An opportunity came up when my snowboarding group decided to go to Iceland this year and I quickly signed on board. Luckily, my friend had been to Iceland before and planned our itinerary based on what she had experienced. This post will detail our 5 day itinerary and tips we picked up along the way.

First, the pace for our 5 day road trip on Golden Circle was leisurely. This is a deviation from my normal jam-packed itinerary, however, it did forced me to prioritize the top two things I wanted to do each day and to slowly take in the scenery. A significantly amount of the time was spent in the car as the sites are one to two hours’ drive from each other. We also decided to visit Iceland in March to take in the last of the Northern Lights and ice caves at Langjokull Glacier. Most people expect to see the Northern Lights right away and this was not the case. The chance of spotting the Northern Lights comes down to luck, weather and solar activity. We checked the Northern Activity index at each day and were very lucky to see it on our last night. A lot of time in Iceland is spent marveling at the changing scenery and creation from Mother Nature.

Destination: Blue Lagoon / Reykjavik / Kerio Crater Lake / Seljalandsfoss / Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach / Langjokull Glacier / Fjaorargljufur Canyon / Reynisfjara Beach / Skógafoss / Keldur – Turf Houses / Selfoss / Litli Geysir Park / Reykjavik

Day 1: Blue Lagoon / Reykjavik

We took a red eye flight from JFK to Reykajavik on Iceland Air and arrived at 5am local time. We had booked our reservation time for the famous Blue Lagoon for 10am and quickly realized that we probably should have booked it earlier. After a quick trip to the car rental adjacent to the aiport where we rented a 15 people passenger van for 6 people. At first it seemed like the van was too big, but it ended being very comfortable for our long road trip. I would highly recommend renting our size van if you have at least 6 people. It was easy to drive according to the two guys that drove it and had enough room for our luggage and spacious seating to lounge on. My group quickly decided to drive to the Blue Lagoon, which opened at 8am, to see if we could move our reservation up. (You must book a reservation a few weeks before you depart as this is a very popular tourist destination.) Luckily, we were able to move our reservation since the lagoon just opened for the day. We also opted for the premium package, which included bathrobes, slippers, towel, 2 masks, a free drink at the lagoon bar, option to make a reservation at Lava and sparkling wine for lunch at the restaurant for approximately $100 per person.

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Source: Gleb Chuvpilo

The changing room in the Blue Lagoon was surprisingly small for the amount of visitors, so coming at 8am allowed my group to have a good portion of it to ourselves. After showering (mandatory) and slathering our hair with a ton of conditioner, we made our way out to the 30F misty weather. If you do not put conditioner in your hair before going into the water, it will be hard as a rock from the sediments in the lagoon. There was something magical about seeing steam rising from the 100F silica water and the incoming early morning fog to welcome us to Iceland.  My friends and I spent the next 4 hours exploring the various grotto, nooks and other surprises that the Blue Lagoon had to offer. Most of the time, the depth of the lagoon is approximately 4 feet, but there were some parts that went over my 5 feet head that I clung on to my taller friends like they were flotation devices. We also received a good water exercise walking and swimming in the lagoon to get from one place to another. Next, we slathered ourselves with the silica mud mask and then an algae mask that are offered at a station at one side of the lagoon. Directly across the lagoon is the bar area where they offered a variety of smoothies and drinks. The lagoon slowly became busier around 10am, so the earlier you can make it to the lagoon, the better the experience will be.

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Around 12:30pm, we made our way to Lava for lunch. I highly suggest making a reservation as there are not many options to eat besides a small café. The views of the lagoon from the inside are spectacular and our three course menu was delicious. The service like most of Iceland is at an island pace, so be prepared to spend 2 hours for lunch. After a delicious start, we drove 45 minute to Reykavik and checked into the Storm King Hotel. It is a small boutique hotel that resembles the Scandinavian version of Marriot Courtyard.

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For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered aimlessly around city center and started to get sticker shock, even for New Yorkers, for Icelandic goods. We visited the outside of Hallgrímskirkja, the famous Lutheran church and received our first taste of the unpredictable weather when it started to rain hard on us for 5 minutes even though it had been sunny for the last hour. Funny enough the rain stopped as soon as we managed to get our ponchos on. Downtown Reykjavik is very small and there is not much to sight see. The city center has just a few streets of shops and restaurants. We made a point to visit Boejarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand on the corner of Tryggvagata and ordered a hot dog with everything on it. Each hot dog was topped with diced onions, crispy onions, ketchup, mayonnaise and Icelandic mustard. The combination of the higher quality meat than your average NYC street meat and various toppings make this one delectable afternoon treat. For dinner, we visited Grillmarkadurinn for dinner as the restaurant is known to specialize in different grilled local dishes. The décor for this restaurant is a modern- glam- industrial mash up. The dishes were well executed and tasty, although nothing innovative as suggested by the décor or the buzz. The flavorful soft duck and briny seafood soup was my favorite of the night. I also tried whale meat, which had a gamy flavor and texture similar to reindeer. It was an interesting dish to try…however I would not repeat it.

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 Day 2: Kerio Crater Lake / Seljalandsfoss

We piled into our van first thing in the morning and waved Reykavik goodbye. The scenery changed quickly as we made our way on the Golden Circle. Normally on a road trip, I would be considered a horrible wingman as I fall asleep as soon as the car moves. On this trip, my eyes were wide open. The mountains changed from earthy colors to snow covered peaks and then back to moss covered flat lands. I can completely understand why Game of Thrones would be filmed here. The scenery is out of this world!

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As we pulled into the parking lot of Kerio Crater Lake, I saw ribbons of green, brown and yellows streaming along the top of the crater. This is a volcanic crater that has a small entrance fee and fewer visitors than some of the other sites. My group leisurely walked around the crater and then trod down a muddy and slippery path to the bottom where a frozen lake greeted us. The bottom of the lake afforded a different view than from the top and made it seemed like one could be completely alone. Overall we spent 30 minutes here taking pictures and freezing out butts off from the bitter wind.

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Next we arrived at Seljalandsfoss and ended up chasing rainbows (literally). Seljalandsfoss is considered one of the most picturesque waterfall in Iceland standing at 65 meters or 123 feet high. Our friend suggested we all wear ponchos because there is a path behind the waterfall. She got soaked wearing jeans and a windbreaker when she visited last time and had cold jeans for the rest of the day. I looked around and saw numerous people with jeans on and mused that they were in for a wet surprise. We walked toward the waterfall and also in the direction of a bright rainbow seemingly guarding a pot of gold nearby. I could feel the force of the water just standing nearby the front of the fall with the spray hitting my face. We decided to take the path behind the waterfall and I was never more grateful for my waterproof outfit plus the poncho. My face got soaked and I had to wear my sunglasses so my eyes could be protected. The watery mess was worth it as the waterfall is very pleasant. This is not Niagara Falls by any means, but there is something charming about this waterfall that just puts a smile on your face.

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The sun was setting so we rushed to make it to the Hali Country Hotel. This hotel reminds me of a cross between a camp ground and a hostel. There was not much of an option available to us. I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up to the stunning mountain range surrounding our lodging.

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Day 3: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach / Langjokull Glacier / Fjaorargljufur Canyon

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is next to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier and is very popular with tourists. When we arrived at the lagoon, I was surprised by the immense wind that flows through the area. The views are stunning as chunks of ice melded with glaciers and frigid water. The ice formations are in various shades of blue that shone brightly against the black pebble strewn beach. We climbed a nearby mound to get a better view only to be hit with gusts of wind. I could barely hold my iPhone straight to take a picture. Once I got back down to the beach, the initial gust of wind was now much more manageable. My friends and I picked out ice chunks that we like and threw it at each other like school children. That is what Iceland does to you; it gives you this feeling of pure merriment. Across the lagoon is Diamond Beach where fragments of the glacier has ended up at the beach. We spent a few minutes here taking pictures and marveled at how these mini iceberg ended up at this beach.

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Before we knew it, we had to meet up with Goecco Company for our ice cave tour at Langjokull Glacier. This was the last week that they allowed visitors to the ice cave. What we didn’t anticipate was the amount of people that were going to the ice cave at the same time and how small that cave actually is. I had assumed we would be going into tunnels, only to go a hallway length into an ice cave. The cave is still stunning, however it was completely packed with tourists. I would suggest not taking any picture until the end when the tours have cleared out a bit. My best pictures were from the last few minutes before we walked on top of the glaciers. The view is spectacular and I felt very much like an adventurer walking on top of glacier that extended as far as the eye can see. The tour guide was very strict with us as we walked single file, since you never know where the “holes” in the snow are located. The experience was cool although not as wild as the pictures made it look on the tour website. The whole experience took 3 hours.

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As the time flew by, we raced to Fjaorargljufur Canyon before the sun set. The Fjadra River flows through the canyon creating this beautiful gorge and the rocks are covered in squishy thick moss that looked and felt like walking on pillows. There is a marked path and many “terraces” off the path that entice visitors to try their luck. Some of the terraces look sketchy, but there was one that had a wider path where we ended up getting some great photos. I would not recommend getting off the mark path unless you understand the risk and do not fear heights. As the sun set over the canyon and the sky showered us with flurries, I took in the sight and began my descent to the car for our ride to our hotel for the night.

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Day 4: Reynisfjara Beach / Skógafoss / Keldur – Turf Houses

Being a New Yorker, my version of the country is upstate NY or the Poconos. When you are in Iceland, the country means your lodging is really in the middle of nowhere. When I looked outside my window as we were leaving our hotel, I could not help but be in awe of this vast area of land.

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Our first designation of the day was the famous Reynisfjara Beach that has been an Instagram star. The black beaches made of lava stones with the fiery white waves crashing along the shores is a site of contrasts. In the distance, I saw looming stone structures that just seemed to pop out of the ocean.

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Source: Gleb Chuvpilo

As we made our way toward the water, I saw certain folks get soaked unexpectedly by these waves and I mused to myself, this would never happen to me because I was vigilant. Lo and behold, as we were exploring the area and taking pictures, a rogue wave came out of nowhere and made it way far up the beach where we thought it was safe and had all of us scrambling to get out of its way. I was block by the rock wall, so I climbed up the slick steps only to fall backwards and face planted into the crashing waves. Thank goodness I had my waterproof outfit on so that prevented me from getting completely soaked. I later found out that this beach is notorious for random waves that actually swept people out to sea where they drowned. My advice is to always have your eyes on the tide and to wear waterproof clothes. You don’t want to be that person that wear jeans and get completely soaked in the frigid temperature.

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Source: Gleb Chuvpilo

After the eventful time at the beach, we drove to Skogafoss, one of Iceland’s biggest and tallest waterfalls. This particular waterfall has a stair master workout equivalent of a long staircase to the top of the waterfalls, where I got great views of the area. After Seljalandsfoss, this waterfall was still great to see, but it did not give me the wow factor. If we had time, I would have preferred a different site. We did not stay too long at Skogafoss and headed to Halldorskaffi in Vik for lunch. It is a small restaurant that offers good food at Icelandic prices. The restaurant was charming and it really encapsulate a country inn vibe. My friends and I unwound from the day at this wonderful spot.

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After lunch, we made our way to Keldur before the light left us. Keldur is a medieval farm in the southern region of Rangárvellir that features turf structures that is not present in other parts of Iceland. This is a small attraction, however, I really enjoyed visiting the site. Unfortunately, we did not realized that Keldur was closed for the winter. My group drove down some treacherous icy unplowed “roads” to get the Keldur. We decided to explore the area anyway and it worked out as we had the whole place to ourselves. I would love to go back to see the interiors and the lush hills fill with greenery. I saw pictures my friend took when she visited last year and it looked like it was made for a Discovery channel special. Overall our day 4 was eventful and at the same time, low key.

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Day 5: Selfoss / Litli Geysir Park / Reykjavik

On our last day in Iceland, we made our way back to Reykavik. We discovered Sindri Bakari Café near Icelandic Hotel in Fludir for breakfast. They make freshly baked breads and pastries. There was something magical about staring out at the sparse winter landscape with a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino in my hand.

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So far, we had not seen the elusive northern lights and were a very disappointed. It was one of the main reason that we came to Iceland. We found ourselves checking the solar activity every hour as we drove to our first destination of the day.

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Selfoss is a waterfall located in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. As the glacier melts, the water formed the river that cuts through the canyons and created this gorgeous waterfall. Selfoss is also much wider than the others that we visited on this trip making it an interesting stop for us. After an hour at Selfoss, we headed to nearby Litli Geysir Park. I had imagined the geysers to be similar to what we have at Yellowstone National Park, however, it was much smaller in reality. There is one geyser that erupts every 10 minutes and many mini crevices that makes up the rest of the “geyser” park. There is really not much to see beyond 15 minutes at this particular site. I can see that if you have never seen a geyser, this would be a novel attraction.

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As we left Litli Geysir Park, our stomachs were protesting so we made our way to Fridheimar, a restaurant inside a tomato greenhouse. I highly suggest making a reservation before you go to Fridheimer as it is bustling. The menu options are all tomato based and the portions are huge even by American standards. Each of us ordered a tomato soup and a tomato ravioli dish. In hindsight, we should have only ordered the soup. You can refill it as many times as you want and they had the most gorgeous variety of breads to go with the soup. The atmosphere was very different than the typical restaurant as it does feel like you are surrounded by spring in the middle of the winter since we sat next to tomato vines and basil plants.

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After lunch, we drove back to Reykavik to see if we could attempt to catch the Northern Lights that night. Lucky for us, the weather cleared up and we purchased a ticket on a boat going out at 9pm. We had time to kill so we visited Harpa, a concert hall and conference center by the harbor. It is a modern glass structure designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in co-operation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. If you are a fan of architecture, this is a must see stop. The inside is filled with interest linear contemporary design and has sweeping views of Reykavik’s harbor and nearby mountains.

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We had just enough time after visiting Harpa for a quick dinner at Torfan Lobsterhouse, a gourmet French Icelandic restaurant. Torfan is situated in a historic house so it did feel like you were in someone’s dining room. I had the Icelandic lobster 200gr for approximately $65 a plate. Icelandic lobster is more like a supersized crawfish than US lobster, and has a more delicate taste. At this point, I’m adjusted to the Icelandic inflation so $65 a dish did not seem outrageous.

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As the clock ticked toward 9pm, we bundled up in all the layers that we had as we would be in open water for an extended period of time. I had my thickest thermals, cashmere sweater, a thick sweatshirt and my snowboarding outfit over it so I looked like a waddling snowman. If you do not have a fancy camera, you can still capture northern light photo on your iPhone with Northern Lights Photo Taker app, which cost $2. When I first saw the Northern Lights, I was very surprised. It was not the bright green wave that you see in all the photos. In fact, it resembles faint white cloud threads. The long exposure shot absorbs the green elements in the air and turns the photos into those majestic sky art on Instagram. The lights does this “dance” where they morph into different shapes over the course of an hour. Seeing the Northern Lights in person was a bucket list experience and a satisfying end to our Icelandic adventure.

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There are only a few places in the world that I would want to re-visit and Iceland is high on that list. I was surprised by how much I was in awe of the landscapes and I look forward to visiting in the summer when the island is filled with lush greenery.

For a list of items to pack for winter and spring travel in Iceland, click here.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured Photo: Gleb Chuvpilo

Vietnamese Banana Cake / Bánh Chuối Nướng

Vietnamese Banana Cake or Bánh Chuối Nướng is a cross between a bread pudding and a spongy cake. One can see the French influences on Vietnamese cuisine with this cake. Add a few spoonful of creamy coconut sauce and you have a delicious desert anytime of the day.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 8 / Time: 2 hours to prepare and 1 hour to cool

Ingredients:

10 whole steamed sapa banana (approx. 2 frozen packages found in any Asian supermarket).

8 slices of white bread

4 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter and 1 teaspoon of melted butter to coat the pan

1 teaspoon of vanilla sugar or 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 tablespoon of tapioca starch

4 tablespoons of sugar

1 egg

2 cans (14 oz) of coconut milk

2 tablespoons of condensed milk

1 cup of milk

1 tablespoon of white wine or rum

9 inch spring form pan

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Directions:

Cut 4 bananas length wise and cut the remaining 6 bananas into thin round slices.

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Add the bananas into a large mixing bowl and add 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of wine. Carefully incorporate the ingredients without breaking the bananas apart. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and let the mixture rest on the counter for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

In another mixing bowl, add 1 can of coconut milk, 1 cup of regular milk, 2 tablespoons of condensed milk, 1 tablespoon of tapioca starch, 1 teaspoon of vanilla sugar, 1 egg, 4 tablespoons of melted butter and stir.

Cube the white bread and soak the bread in the milk mixture for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, add the round banana slices and mix evenly.

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Brush the inside of a 9 inch spring form pan with 1 teaspoon of melted butter.

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Pour the bread mixture evenly into the pan.

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Top the mixture with the long banana slices. Lightly press down so the milk mixture can “cover” the top of the bananas. You can also use a brush to spread some of the milk mixture on top of the bananas.

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Bake for 1 hour at 375F. After 1 hour, turn the broiler on for 7 to 10 minutes until the top has caramelized and turns golden brown. Remove from the oven and brush a little of the melted butter on top and let the cake cool. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour so the cake can solidify.

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Make the coconut sauce:

Heat 2 cups of coconut milk with 1 cup of water. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Turn off the heat once the ingredients have incorporated together. Top a slice of banana cake with a few spoons of coconut sauce for a delicious treat.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

What to pack for Iceland for Winter and Spring

I recently went to Iceland in the middle of March and, like most people, I was furiously googling on what to pack leading up to the trip. The weather is so unpredictable that Iceland can get three seasons a day, if not within a few hours. Even though my group went in the middle of March, the weather was winter in some areas and early spring in others making it difficult to pack efficiently. Furthermore, I do not own any real gear for trekking through uneven terrain and the unpredictable weather of southern Iceland. At the same time, I did not want to spend more money on a new wardrobe that I only wear once. This packing list is what I ended up bringing and is what works for the Icelandic weather.

Ski or snowboarding gear

If you have snowboarding or ski gear, you are half way done. It rains in Iceland…a lot and at random times. It can be sunny one minute and pouring the next. I ended up bringing a waterproof and windproof Marmont shell that was perfect for this weather. The shell allowed for layering during the “winter” moments and was light enough for spring-like weather. Most importantly, it was windproof! Do not even think of using an umbrella. Locals were not kidding when they said “it’s windy”. Waterproof snowboarding or ski pants are also perfect for Iceland and I ended up wearing my one pair almost every day over my tights. The snowboarding pants provided warmth and protection from the wind and kept me dry. Additionally, I also brought along my snowboarding gloves, which worked nicely for Icelandic winter and spring. Basically, I did not have to buy the expensive stuff because I had my snowboarding gear.

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If you do have a good puffer, you can wear it and get a poncho to layer over the jacket when it rains or at waterfalls. My friend did that and it kept her dry and warm. It was also cheaper than buying a new waterproof jacket. A poncho is recommended for Iceland and it is cheaper to buy it in the US as I found out. The basic poncho that I purchased in Iceland was close to $40! You will get drenched near certain waterfalls, so it is just smart to have a poncho available.

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Thermals / Base Layers

This is the first time I have ever contemplated thermals, but now I’m obsessed. I had a set of base layers from snowboarding, but that was not enough for 5 days without laundry. I searched around for cheaper alternatives and discovered heat tech layers from Uniqlo. In the winter, they have extra warm and ultra warm shirts and leggings. These thermals retail for approximately $15 each and Uniqlo seems to have 40% off sales all the time…so it is affordable to stock up. Uniqlo currently has a thermal version for spring on its website. These thermals are thin, comfortable like pajamas, keep you warm but not overheated and somehow windproof. I wore the tights every day and put my snowboarding pants over them when I arrived at the site and took them off for the long road trip. They are so comfortable that I still wear them all the time in NYC.

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Source: Uniqlo

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Source: Uniqlo

Cashmere sweaters

I had a few cashmere sweaters from Everlane that I lived in all winter. I just wore them over my thermals and was able to wear the sweaters a few times since we didn’t have access to laundry on this trip. Additionally, cashmere sweaters are so soft and provide just enough warmth for the spring and winter weather.

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Source:  Everlane (I have at least 4 of these sweaters in different colors.)

Hiking boots

I did not own a pair of hiking boots and they are generally very expensive. I splurged on a pair of “hiking” winter boots (Sugarbush) from Merrell that were stylish, warm and waterproof. I was so happy with these as they are ridiculously comfortable. They made walking on the ice, dirt, pebbles, you name it terrain easy. Do not wear UGGs as you will sprain your ankle and the boots will be soaked within hours.

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Merrell Sugarbush Boots

Good warm socks

I had thick socks from LL Bean and Merrell and also my snowboarding wool socks. They kept me warm and comfy the whole trip. My snowboarding socks are so colorful that it was great to have them over my tights since they cover most of my bottom leg and add a dose of style to a basic outfit. Again, the trick is not to buy new stuff for this trip and still look stylish so wear what you have.

Your favorite stylish beanie, scarf and sunglasses

It’s windy and cold in Iceland. I have a favorite black beanie that just made any outfit street chic and kept my head warm from the wind. I also had a “turtle” scarf from snowboarding that was perfect for this trip. See what I mean when I said if you have snowboarding gear, you are halfway done. It is also very bright in Iceland due to the reflecting snow and glaciers, even when the weather is cloudy. Sunglasses are a necessity and are another way to add personal style to your winter utilitarian outfit.

Backpack

I used my Tumi’s Voyager Halle backpack the entire time I was in Iceland. I generally used it to carry my work laptop around NYC, but it worked well for this trip. It was waterproof, light and I was able to carry everything that I needed for the road trip. Another plus for me was that it did not look like I was carrying the typical “wilderness” backpack.

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Source: Tumi

Toiletries

Usually you can depend on hotels to have decent shampoo, conditioner and other toiletries. I found this not to be the case in some of the hotels that we stayed at in the country. One hotel only had shampoo and soap while another had toiletries that did not look to be of decent quality. I was happy to have my own toiletries after a long day on the road.

Slippers or Flip Flops

Bring your own slippers since you never know the cleanliness of the floors in some of the country hotels. Hotels are not as abundant or “luxurious” as they are in Reykjavik.

Medicine

Most Icelandic folks live in Reykjavik, which means towns outside of the city are far apart from each other and do not necessarily have everything you may need. Besides, who wants to hunt down medicine in the middle of a scenic road trip? I usually carry medicine for allergies, cold and flu, headaches and stomach aches or anything else I would need.

Snacks

If you have room in your luggage, I would suggest bringing your favorite snacks for the long southern road trip. I spent a lot of time in the car and that usually means munching on snacks like dried fruit, nuts and chips. This just saved time and money while I was in Iceland.

I brought more than the items listed above on my trip but only ended up using the aforementioned. Hopefully, this article has help you packed more efficiently and easily instead of over packing like me. Check back for more articles on my trip to Iceland.

For our 5 days road trip to the southern coast of Iceland, click here.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured Photo: Gleb Chuvpilo

*This post contains all my personal recommendations and I was not compensated for them.

Pantry Essentials: The Next Level

Once you have stock your kitchen with the essentials to make Vietnamese food, you should consider taking the pantry to the next level. These are items you may not need every time you make Vietnamese food, but they will come up often enough to consider having them in the pantry. Most of these items should be available at your local Asian markets or on Amazon.

1. Shrimp Paste / Mắm Ruốc Mắm Tôm – This is a pungent fermented shrimp paste made of small shrimps that are dried and fermented with salt and sugar. This is a base for many of the dishes from central Vietnam, especially from Hue.

2. Starches (Potato Starch | Corn Starch | Tapioca Starch) – The different type of starches can be used as thickening agents as well as combined with rice flour for flour based dishes.

3. Tamarind block – The sweet and sour pulp are pressed together into blocks and sold in many supermarkets including Jet.com. They are the basis of sweet and sour dishes, especially canh chua in Vietnam.

4. Coconut cream /Coconut milk / Coconut juice – These are essentials for curry based dishes and many deserts.

5. White Vinegar – This is used for all the pickling recipes and to get rid of any fishy smell in seafood.

6. Dried shiitake mushrooms – You can’t always get fresh shiitake mushrooms so this is a quick substitute.

7. Earworm mushrooms or Fungus – This is used in many of the dumpling and egg roll fillings.

8. Dried bamboo shoots or can bamboo shoots– This is a common ingredient in vegetable dishes and also in a variety of soups.

9. Peeled split mung bean – This is often used in rice based dishes or as part of a desert.

10. Gelatin/ Agar Agar – This is used to solidify liquid in many deserts.

11. Banh Xeo mix – This is a premix flour for Vietnamese crepes. 

12. Phở Spice packet – This is just a packet filled with Phở seasoning (star anise, cinnamon, peppercorn, cloves, fennel, and coriander). You can buy all the ingredients separately but I find it more convenient just to have a few packets around.

12. Pandan extract syrup – This is the “vanilla” like fragrance and flavoring.

13. Vanilla sugar – This is a substitute for real vanilla extract that is often used in Vietnam.

14. Rice paper – Wrapper to make rolls and wraps with many type of dishes.

15. Dried Noodles – I always have a variety of noodles in the pantry depending on what dish i am making that day.

  • Flat rice noodles (Bánh Phở)
  • Rice vermicelli noodles (Bún)
  • Egg noodles (Mì)
  • Glass noodles (Miến)
  • Tapioca and rice noodles (Bánh Canh) – Vietnam’s version of Udon noodles.

16. Steamer – Asian steamers are wider and shallower than the western version. This is one of the most common cookware for Vietnamese food.

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For more recipes, visit the EAT page or the Recipe Index

Author: Chau Hoang