Reykjavik…Iceland in November…

My friend Jaroslavs was looking at the option of going to Reykjavik and he asked me what I thought of it. After half an hour of taking AT him, I promised to write a blog post so he could see why I thought it was worth a visit – so J, here goes…

Reykjavik is an easy choice. Close to the UK, cheap to get to and beautiful Scandinavian scenery in a volcanic island in the Atlantic – Iceland has been ‘on the list’ for a while.

Flying to Reykjavik is easy from any UK Airport. BA, Icelandair, EasyJet and WOW Air are the leading carriers and have some exceptional deals on their website https://wowair.co.uk/flights/best-fares/  some of which include hotels and attractions, like the Blue Lagoon, for great prices. WOWAir were the cheapest carrier for our dates.

WOWAir to KEF
WOWAir LGW to KEF

All UK flights fly to Keflavik Airport (KEF) which is only 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik. You can either hire a car, my suggestion (more later on this) or get one of many transfers. You should pay 15-20€ pre-booked or 25€ on the spot for a bus/mini-bus transfer.

Reykjavik Time To Go
Keflavik to Reykjavik…

Hotels are available in abundance across the city, we chose to AirBnB an apartment just off the city centre but there are loads of options. Use your usual places or Airbnb, Trivago or Booking.com.

We planned an itinerary based on trying to see as much of the city as possible, the Northern Lights and as much scenery as possible, in three days… (you know I am pretty ambitious with my itineraries!).

Day 1 – Orientation

We took a walk from our apartment to Harpa Concert Hall on the marina. If you are into your architecture, don’t miss this building. Although new, Ólafur Elíasson’s Honeycomb-Basalt inspired glass exterior is impressive and earned the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture.

Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik
Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik

From here, you can walk across to Park Arnarhóll, next to which, is the Prime Minister’s Office. Park Arnarhóll leads towards the city’s shopping district and a road called Bankastræti. There are lots of local shops here and as you get to Laugavegur, the Tourist Information Office is on your left.

On the corner of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, there is a small bar/café on the corner in a basement called Kofinn. There, we stopped for lunch and had some great paninis and coffee.

We then walked up Skólavörðustígur and spent time in the little independent shops on our way up the street to the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral which towers over the city, fronted by a statue of Leif Erikson, the formidable Icelandic explorer who is credited with discovering North America.  You can go inside the cathedral and even up the tower on certain days.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik
Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

From here, the daylight was fading and it was off to find some food!

Near to our apartment, we had been recommended a local seafood restaurant on the old harbour; this was called 101 Harbour restaurant.

Situated harbourside in an old-style fish processing hall, it retains many of the original features. Although eating in Iceland is expensive, Harbour is reasonably priced for the city.

They serve local Icelandic dishes, including responsibly sourced local delicacies (Puffin, Minke Whale) for those who wish for a food adventure too!

I was very impressed by the quality of food here, as well as the hospitality and customer service!

The evening was topped off by a sighting of the Northern Lights in the sky above Reykjavik on the walk home. As an excitable photographer, I wrapped up and with Kerrie, my photography-buddy Kris James and a few others, we headed down to the Lighthouse Beach to see if we could catch the Northern Lights. I was more than happy with what I got:

Northern Lights Reykjavik
Northern Lights Reykjavik

See Timelapse Here: Northern Lights Reykjavik Timelapse

According to locals, you are just as likely to see the Northern Lights in a dark part of Reykjavik than on a Northern Light Tour.

Day 2 – Golden Circle Tour

The Golden Circle Tour is one of the biggest topics of debate for planning an Iceland trip. Which trip do you take? Which company? What attractions? Half-day or full-day? My advice is this:

We arranged ours with a local guide who we found whilst in Iceland. As there was 12 of us, they provided 3 4×4 people carriers and we had a completely private and flexible trip. It took all day (6am until 8pm) and was one of the best excursions I have ever done.

Iceland is beautiful, dramatic and impressive – the best way to see it is on one of these tours. Although we included some optional extras, it was still nearly £100 each! For the trip we wanted, everyone else was more expensive!

Our agenda for the day was this:

Stop 1 – Seljalandsfoss (A waterfall that you can walk behind!)

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is about 1.5 hours from Reykjavik on Route 1. This route takes you through the geothermal lavafields where you can see steam rising up all around from geothermal wells. This has loads of parking and a walkway around into the cavern behind the waterfall. We spent about half an hour here.

Stop 2 – Skógafoss Waterfall

Further along Route 1, you head towards Skógafoss. The scenery is awesome and well worth seeing.

Route 1, Iceland
Route 1 Scenery

About 10 minutes before you get there, a stop can be put in at Eyjafjallajökull Erupts, a small farmhouse museum to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Eruptions that shut down European Airspace; it is at the closest road point to Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.

Skógafoss is just past the museum and is an impressive and picturesque waterfall.

Skógafoss Waterfall
Skógafoss Waterfall

If you like a walk, there are some steps on the left where you can walk to the top, or you can walk up to the plunge pool at the base of the falls – or both!

We spent about 1 hour here.

Stop 3 – Sólheimajökull

Going further up Route 1 will take you to Sólheimajökull Glacier. Here you can park up and walk onto the glacier. This is a mobile and live glacier, you can hear it moving and trek to your heart’s content.

Pay attention to the signs though, some parts of the glacier are unstable and caving/hiking are unwise!

Me and Kerrie at Sólheimajökull Glacier
Me and Kerrie at Sólheimajökull Glacier
Sólheimajökull Glacier
Sólheimajökull Glacier
Sólheimajökull Glacier
Sólheimajökull Glacier

We spent about 1.5 hours here…

Stop 4 – Reynisfjara Beach

The Black Beach stretches from opposite Skógafoss, all the way up to Reynisfjara Beach. It is a beach with black sand and is well worth a visit. We stopped at the beach opposite Skógafoss due to time, but next time, I would go up to Reynisfjara Beach, near Vik, for two reasons.

Reason 1 – Basalt Sea Stacks or Reynisdrangar  (Similar to those at Staffa, Scotland or Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland).

Reynisfjara Beach
Reynisfjara Beach
Photo Jason Paris on Flickr. Released under CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/jasonparis/4795831520/

 

Reason 2 – DC-3 Plane Wreck, Reynisfjara Beach

A little further down from the Basalt Sea Stacks, there is an old DC-3 which crashed in the 1970’s after having severe icing. The crew survived but the aircraft has been left to the mercy of mother nature…

Reynisfjara Beach plane crash
Reynisfjara Beach Plane Crash.
Photo by Chris Carr on Flickr released under CC2.0 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/carr_chris/35094602015

** A word of warning – I have been told that the road access has now been closed and it is a 90 minute walk. This is an old empty aircraft and I am sure it is graffiti’d so go at your own risk. Don’t expect too much 🙂 **

If you really do want to do this, it is on Google Maps but it would be worth reading what ExpertVagabond writes on finding this by car!

https://expertvagabond.com/airplane-crash-wreckage-iceland/

Although I didn’t go right up to Reynisfjara Beach, but I have included it on the driving itinerary for interest.

Skógafoss
At Black beach with Skógafoss in background…

When we went onto black beach, road access was easy opposite Skógafoss and you can drive right up to the water’s edge.

Our 4x4's on Black Beach
Our 4×4’s on Black Beach

The beach is impressive and strange…

Black Beach

Especially when there is a whale there!

Washed Up Whale :(
Washed Up Whale 🙁

This poor guy had died and washed up ashore. Apparently, they wash up routinely which is quite sad!

One point to make is that when you stand on Black Beach and face south, you are facing directly South where you could travel in one line and end up at the South Pole directly across the Atlantic – Pretty cool for us Geography Nerds!

 

Stop 5 – Gullfoss

You will go back along Route 1 and then go north on Route 30. About half way up on the left, if it is a clear day, you should be able to see a volcano with a steaming top – this is Hekla.

Hekla is a historically active volcano and was know throughout history as the Gateway to Hell and there is lots of Icelandic Folklore about it including the story that is still told today that at Easter, witches gather on the slopes of Hekla!

Hekla Volcano, Iceland
Hekla Volcano from Route 30

Anyway, about 2 hours after leaving Black Beach you will arrive at Gullfoss. This is a multi-drop waterfall on the Olfusa River and a very popular visitor’s attraction.

There are walkways all around the falls and you can spend an hour or two climbing up the hills to the side to get different views.

Gullfoss, Iceland
Gullfoss
Gullfoss, Iceland
Gullfoss
Gullfoss, Iceland
Gullfoss

Stop 6 – Haukadalur

Haukadalur, only 10 minutes drive from Gullfoss, is a valley that contains most of the famous geothermal Geysers that Iceland has to offer. The most famous, Geysir, rarely goes off nowadays but Strokkur, a sister Geyser goes of reliably every 5-10 minutes in an impressive jet of steam.

Strokkur, Haukadalur
Strokkur, Haukadalur
Haukadalur, Iceland
Strokkur, Haukadalur
Strokkur, Haukadalur
Strokkur, Haukadalur
Strokkur, Haukadalur
Strokkur, Haukadalur

As well as Strokkur, which I could personally watch explode all day, there are up to 40 other geothermal pools…

Little Geysir, Haukadalur
Little Geysir, Haukadalur

We spent about 1.5 hours here.

Stop 7 – Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park (Rift Valley)

This is a great stop at which my camera run out of battery! AHH!

Þingvellir is famous for a number of things including the formation and meeting place of Iceland’s original parliament,  Þingvallavatn a huge lake, the largest in Iceland.  For me, the most impressive thing there, a giant rift valley where you can actually see the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate! This is the wrong place to be left without a camera!

Rift Valley, Þingvellir, Iceland
Rift Valley, Þingvellir – Photo released under CC2.0 by Phax on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/phax/239422729

And that was it, back to Reykjavik for a well earned night’s sleep!

Golden Circle Conclusion

It is expensive, or is it? I am not sure. You have a local guide, a whole day, loads of attractions. I guess it is expensive but good value?

Well worth doing and I loved every minute of it. I will 100% do the golden circle tour again, but probably drive it myself…

Having done it, a 4×4 would be highly recommended however most of the roads are good. Navigation is easy, you can drive on your UK license.

Next time, I will hire a car from the airport, drive to Reykjavik and do the tour myself. I can then do this at my leisure, a lot cheaper than with a tour agency but the one great point is. I can do this at midnight! In summer, it doesn’t get dark. All the attractions are just there, no tickets, no offices, just wander in. I could do this when nobody’s there, spend as long as I like…

My advice, if you are a confident driver – hire a car and do it yourself. However in winter, I would suggest to avoid this idea …it is ICEland after all. And even in the summer – do this at your own risk.

To help, I have added a map below of the route:

Golden Circle Map
Golden Circle Map

If you’re thinking about doing this, as well as loads of useful info on visiting Iceland generally, guidetoiceland.is have written about this here: https://guidetoiceland.is/you-guide/how-to-drive-the-golden-circle

 

Day 3 – Blue Lagoon

Another unmissable thing in Iceland that is on the bucket-list of all my friends is The Blue Lagoon.

Situated between Reykjavik and Keflavik in the dramatic and desolate lava fields, the Blue Lagoon is pretty easy to get to, find out how here:  http://www.bluelagoon.com/plan-your-visit/how-to-get-here/

We took the shuttle which leaves Reykjavik bus station each hour … See timetable here.

Real bucket-list stuff – A geothermally heated pool paradise, electric blue water, that you can bathe in for as long as you wish…. sort of.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland
Blue Lagoon, Iceland   Photo by Carollen Coenen on Flicker released under CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/carolienc

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Blue Lagoon and I don’t mean to sound too sarcastic but I was sold on the pictures and naively didn’t look into it all that much.

The Blue Lagoon is on the back of a fairly luxury spa resort – great. Nice facilities, clean areas, good café.

It does have a swim up bar which proved pretty popular.

It also has swim-around beauty product staff who will offer you face masks and stuff. There must have been something in the water as Kerrie convinced even me to get involved!

Blue Lagoon Face Masks
Me and Kerrie in our Blue Lagoon Face Masks

But I do have a couple observations which, I don’t feel detract from the experience, but I feel were kept a bit quiet.

The first is that it isn’t naturally heated. Or it is, in so much that the water is heated by hot volcanic rocks under the earth, as opposed to being electrically heated. But it is still the result of human machinery pushing it down pipework to be heated and returned to a geothermal power plant behind and the waste water being used for the Blue Lagoon. Don’t get me wrong, this is no doubt 100% safe, as it is just water heated into steam to turn a turbine, there is no funny-business there, but it is kind of sold as a natural hot spring lagoon, like others around the world and for me – it isn’t really. Had I done my research, I would have known this but I didn’t. There are many similar natural pools around that are ice-cold!

Freezing cold lagoon nearby
Freezing cold lagoon nearby…

Also, the back drop, as you can see from the first image above, the backdrop is a geothermal power plant. As beautiful a power plant as it is, it isn’t quite the natural lava fields that surround the rest of the area.

One more thing to note is that the communal towel rack system they operate, doesn’t really work – I got to see a lot of disgruntled people at the end of the day, realising someone had taken their Egyptian Cotton Towel and left a Primark special version in its place. Although funny to watch, pretty annoying for the people who had their towels taken! My tip – take a garish towel that is unique if you don’t want to be involved in ‘The Great Towel Exchange’.

In all, this is a good day out. I would do it again and it was fun. I just wanted to honestly note a couple things that took the shine off slightly…

After all that, our time in Reykjavik had run out. We vowed to return as soon as we could as we loved it. I haven’t spoken much about the people and I am a big believer that the people make a place. We found the Icelandic People to be super-hospitable, very funny and believe me – they can drink!

Dan 🙂

 

Malta in March…My Malta Review

Malta in March…My Malta Review

I still have no idea why I suggested Malta, but here is my Malta Review.

At the time, following a previous holiday where BA Late Deals had messed up our Dubrovnik trip, we had some BA credit to use up and for some reason, I thought Malta would be an interesting trip to spend it on. After succumbing to the seamless marketing of VisitMalta, Kerrie agreed it would be worth a visit.

We flew from Gatwick to Malta with British Airways and landed in the Maltese capital of Valetta (more on Valetta later). We arrived to one of my typical ‘no one’s ever heard of them’ car rental desk.

A rather abrupt gentlemen processed our booking and worked to up-sell every product he could including a sat nav. Schoolboy error number 1, I chose to go with a sat nav as we were due to stay on the opposite side of the island and I had no idea how to get there.

I looped the airport about three times whilst Kerrie tried to find some satellites on the satnav I had foolishly paid for. Ok, satellites located, great work – our hotel won’t come up… hmm… I pulled over convinced I would work it….Nope, the only language loaded was Maltese and I had no idea how to spell our hotel name, in Maltese.

I decided, from memory, to  head west… you can only get so lost, can’t you?

As we descended into St. Paul’s Bay it started raining pretty heavy so I turned on the wipers, and to my surprise, the rubber part fell off and left the metal arm to scratch across the windscreen. After a further 20 minutes of driving, with my head virtually out of the window, we arrived in Ramla Bay, my hair dripping wet and we could see the hotel, we just couldn’t get to it!

I had booked the Ramla Bay Resort based on it’s 4 star rating (confirmed by TripAdvisor) and its proximity to the Gozo ferry port.

After I had resorted to Google Maps on my phone, we had to leave Ramla Bay and re-enter on another road, as the Hotel entrance is not in Ramla Bay but at the top of the hill on what looks like an un-made road.

When we arrived, there were very few free parking spaces and we were directed to park out of the hotel grounds on some scrap land and walk back to the hotel with our luggage.

The reception ‘first impression’ is a bit underwhelming. A fairly standard reception with staff who were fairly helpful. We checked in and went to our room. The room was fine, again, fairly average and the hotel feels a little ‘tired’.

The following day, we decided to go straight to Gozo and see what was there. From my research, I saw there was a UNESCO world heritage site – Temples of Ggantija which looked amazing.  The ferry port was a 10 minute drive at most and we got straight on.

Ferry from Malta to Gozo
Ferry from Malta to Gozo

 

At Gozo island, after getting a new wiper blade, we drove up into the islands interior heading for the Temples of Ggantija. We found a discreet sign pointing to these but it is not obvious. Entry is through the tourist centre and museum for the Temples – and less than 10 Euro each for museum and temple visit, it’s not a bad price either.

It was underwhelming to say the least. The temple is in a strange state of disrepair and repair. The temples are a lot smaller than they look in the photographs (around 2-3 feet tall!) and the tour guide was very clear when she explained that they had been rebuilt in the form that the discoverer believed they originally were. They are in the middle of a field and there isn’t much to look at.

Temples of Ggantija
Temples of Ggantija

I am all for monolithic sites and I appreciate the sense of significance with sites like this, but once they have been rebuilt and marketed as hard as they have been, the awe can wilt a little.

When we left Ggantija, I managed, for the first time, to get the car over 30mph – which was a real mistake as the steering wheel started to wobble violently and the car shuddered. Being a mechanic, I climbed underneath and saw the steering arm had a rather impressive bend in it and the tyre had a big chunk missing on the inside edge… Do we lose a day and get it swapped or just carry on…..carry on of course!

Whilst on Gozo, the Azure Window was always a must see and in a genuinely beautiful area until…. two weeks ago, it fell into the sea!! 

Azure Window, Malta
Azure Window, Malta

This is a giant arch carved into the rock by the sea’s wave action and is surrounded by lots of erosion caused rock formations (including another much smaller arch)

Azure Window, Malta
Azure Window, Malta

On the way to or from Azure Window, it is worth heading along the coast roads that run to some of the beaches. On these, you will find shallow squares cut out of the rock shelves that the beach meets.  These are the Maltese salt farms. The water washes up over them at high tide, at low tide, the sun dries them out and the salt can be harvested. Not a tourist attraction but interesting to see.

Gozo Salt Farms
Gozo Salt Farms

In the sandstone banks at the edges of the beach, huts have also been carved out in some placed even with doors fitted too!

Malta Review
Rock Buildings, Gozo

 

On Gozo, there are a number of nice churches to see and some quaint little villages too. We spent the day and went on the ferry back that evening.

Next day we drove up to see what the fuss is about with Popeyes Village…and after visiting, I’m still not sure.

Popeye’s is an ‘intentionally’ derelict looking town in a windswept cove. It is an original film set from the Popeye film which is significant but for me, it didn’t do much.

Malta Review
Popeye’s Village, Malta

At first we thought it had been destroyed by a storm and was closed but it turned out to be open. Having no children, we decided not to venture down but I was asked for my thoughts by Popeye’s village and I gave them the above. Their response was :

Dear Dan, 

We thank you for finding time to visit Popeye Village during your stay in Malta.

As you are making your way through the village, one must appreciate that you are visiting one of the very few film-sets still fully intact after all these years – as usually, film sets are disassembled as soon as shooting is over due to copy rights, but luckily, the Popeye film set is still here for us to appreciate.

Please note that the shabby-looking village had to resemble a poor fishing village dating back to post First World War, where all its people had to do was to pay all their earnings to the commodore in taxes!!! Therefore, the designer that was engaged for this project had to take into consideration that the village had to resemble the original Segar’s cartoon drawings which were initially depicted in comics in the 1920s and 30s.

Thanks and many regards,

Events, HR & Customer Relations Manager

Fair enough I think. Could be worth a visit on a nice day with kids?

We carried on along the south coast and headed for Dingli Cliffs. Dingli Cliffs again had the ‘VisitMalta treatment’ and looked amazing in the photos. Having visited, they are just some cliffs. Full disclosure, I do live very close to the Seven Sisters Cliffs so I am probably desensitized to it a little… I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

Malta Review
Cart Ruts, Clapham Junction, Malta

Very close by, difficult to find, is Clapham Junction Cart Ruts (called Misrah Ghar il-Kbir in Malta) but they are signposted as ‘Cart Ruts’ or ‘Kart Rutts’. These are hundreds of what look like horse and cart tracks actually carved into the rock floor. There are other examples on the islands but these are the best.

Malta Review
Clapham Junction, Malta

From the cliffs, head down the Triq Inżul ix Xemx (road), as the road forks, keep right and on you right, there will be a little field with a sign. Park in there and walk across the fiels in the direction of the coast road, you will come into a field where the Cart Ruts start. Walk around to your heart’s content – they’re everywhere.

Malta Review
Kart Rutts, Malta

I genuinely found these really interesting. I don’t believe they are ruts from carts as they come from nowhere (Dingli Cliffs) and go towards the fields. Why would you have that much cart traffic that it carved grooves (some a foot or so deep) into the rock?  Also, these grooves get closer together and further apart, by a big amount too. How is that possible with a rigid axle vehicle? Obviously typically we are told these were made in mud and became rock… I think these are something much more interesting but that is a whole other post! 🙂

From there, you can continue east along that coast and arrive at Malta’s Freeport. As I have worked in cargo and shipping, I can’t resist visiting large or important ports… if you are interested, go take a look!

Malta Review
Malta Free Port

From there, we headed back via St. Paul’s Bay to get some food, parking can be a pain here but there are some good restaurants in the bay.

Following day we chose to go and spend a day at the pool as it was quite warm and the persistent 10mph wind that had blown since our arrival had died down a little. Luckily, we went to check it out before donning our swimwear as when we arrived, the pools were empty and dry – not open until April…

There is an inside pool and spa facility at the hotel though… oh, that was closed too.

After scrapping that idea, we went to see St. Agatha’s Tower, Triq Tad-Dahar, or Red Tower as it is creatively called by the locals. Worth driving up to see, it was only a few minutes from our hotel and there is a route you can take on that road to see some of the beautiful western Malta. My route is here:

Malta review
My route, the dotted part is driveable…

From there, we spent the afternoon at Paradise Bay which was nice, a little busy but would be a great place to catch the sun in summer.

On our last full day, we wanted to go to Valetta, the capital. On the way though, on an island smaller than the city of London, much to Kerrie’s disappointment, I managed to find an Aviation Museum!

Between working in aviation and being a plane geek, I managed to find an excuse for us to go. What a treat!

Malta Aviation Museum
Malta Aviation Museum

Malta Aviation Museum-Ta’ Qali-Malta – Meteors, Sea Hawks, Vampires, Lightnings, this is the way aviation museums should be! All sorts of aircraft/engines in all states of restoration scattered around for you to look at your own leisure. This will make any plane geek’s day!

We swiftly proceeded to Valetta and parked up in the city centre parking (surprisingly hard to find). Valetta is a very old city which has been the only hub on the island for any significant period of time. The whole city is amazing, crafted sandstone in a kind of baroque style with huge city walls and a bridge to enter.

Malta Review
Valetta Street Musician, Malta

You could spend a few days wandering the small streets, some dating back to the 16th century, with their charming little cafés. As you enter the city, you will probably come across the ruins of the Royal Opera House which was destroyed in WWII.

Valetta Street, Malta
Valetta Street, Malta

The feel of Valetta and the people are just awesome.

Malta is an interesting place, the car and the weather probably clouded our trip a little. I feel Malta oversells itself a little and this maybe makes you feel about underwhelmed when you see the things in real life. Without such marketing they would probably have been pretty impressive.

Despite our hiccups, we had a great laugh and a good trip overall! The beaches are good and in summer, if you want somewhere, that’s good value, to soak up the sun, Malta would be perfect (just hire a decent car!).

Just another quick Malta review tip for any plane geeks, Malta airport offers a raised viewing platform mid-runway with parking too… take your camera!

Planespotter's Hideout, Malta
Planespotter’s Hideout, Malta

Will we be going back to Malta? Probably not.

Dan 🙂

P.S. The car hire company agreed the vehicle shouldn’t have been in that condition and refunded us a day as a good-will gesture…

Air Malta, Valetta
Air Malta, Valetta

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Lake Bled, Slovenia

Slovenia

I must have looked at over twenty destinations in my search for our perfect February break.

We had four days ideally, had to be a reasonable cost, had to be within a few hours flight and I wanted to fly from Gatwick – an easy criteria for Europe in February.

I searched for ways to convince Kerrie of each place I found and she was indifferent to my excited pitch about what there was to do in each place until I showed her a picture of Lake Bled.

When she said ‘We have to go there!’, I immediately booked flights before she could change her mind!

Castle on Lake Bled, Slovenia
My own, unedited photo…

Lake Bled is in Northern Slovenia, not far from the Austrian border. It is a beautiful lake in the Julian Alps with a small island in the middle. It is a big tourist attraction in the summer but winter seems to be their low season.

Bled town is primarily to the East of the lake and has plenty of hotels and restaurants to cater for the busy season. It also has a big Medieval Castle on a hill towering over the town which is lit up at night.

In winter, the lake freezes over to such a thickness that you can walk over the surface, all the way to the island in the middle – when we got there, a warm spell had hit and the ice wasn’t thick enough to safely walk on!

I booked flights with Easyjet from Gatwick to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana ( pronounced Lyub-liy-ana).  Ljubljana is just over a 2 hour flight from London and return fare for us was less than £100 each. The only problem with flights to Ljubljana is that Easyjet fly out Friday evening and back on Monday midday with no flights on Tuesdays (in early Feb) so our 4 day getaway was off the cards.  We flew out on the Friday evening and decided to fly back on the Wednesday. This would give us 4 full days in Slovenia with two days to fly.

Bled is about 20 miles from Ljubljana Airport and is essentially, one motorway until the road into Bled. There are plenty of transfer options, as well as train and bus links. For around 15 euros a day, we hired a car from InterRent at the airport.

If you are going to use InterRent I can save you an hour of aimless walking – their office is not in the well-sign posted Car Rental facility, as you might expect! As you exit the arrivals building, turn immediately right, walk down to the departures building, go in the first set of doors and turn immediately left. There will be a dimly lit corridor that their office is on…it took me about an hour to find and no airport staff know where it is either!

We then drove north to Bled and arrived at our hotel in about 30 minutes which had free parking.

We normally choose a cheap hotel when we go on short breaks as we spend so little time in the room but this time, with my adventure plans for this year, we decided to splash out on a five-star hotel – Grand Hotel Toplice.  The hotel is in the south of Bled, right on the edge of the lake. I wasn’t convinced by the elegance of the hotel from the promotional pictures but nevertheless for less than £100 a night on Booking.com, it should still be great value.

We had few plans when we arrived, I just had my normal book full of scribbles from my research of things to see and do. When we checked in, there was a brilliant concierge who was incredibly welcoming and knew everything about Slovenia and Bled. He gave us more maps than we would ever need and suggestions on enough attractions to fill a few weeks at least!

We spent the Saturday exploring, we drove around the lake (15mins) about three times and explored Bled making a plan of attack for the trip.

Typically, I cannot resist a ‘Road Trip’ and I managed to convince Kerrie that we should do one on the Sunday:

From Bled to Wörthersee in Austria, across into Italy down to Trieste and back…

With an early start, you can get to the stunning Wörthersee Lake for breakfast, head across into Italy, down through the Easternmost point of the Dolomites, down to Trieste for lunch and back to Bled in time for dinner.

The scenery is breathtaking, although we had fog through a lot of the Italian Alps, the picturesque valleys and towering mountains were definitely worth seeing.

Trieste is a nightmare to drive around! We spent about 2 hours trying to find somewhere to eat as well as somewhere to park. At one point, I got us pretty lost and we were on a 30% incline in the wrong part of the city, with wet tarmac, watching a car slide down the incredibly narrow street towards us as he tried to get some grip!

The driving in this part of the world (ignoring Trieste) is easy! The roads are perfect and quiet, everything is well sign-posted and the other drivers are surprisingly courteous.  The only thing to bare in mind is that in Austria, you need a vignette to drive (like a toll sticker). They only cost around 9 euros for a 10-day vignette (the minimum) but hefty fines are handed out to anyone travelling without one. All the service stations and significant road borders sell them anyway so it isn’t much of an issue.

Next, we wanted to go Skiing. Slovenia is a hidden skiing destination in Europe. It has the world-championship Maribor resort but other than that, they are pretty unknown.

There are a few ski centres around Bled but very few write ups that I could find.

Straža – pretty much opposite our hotel, Straža is basically a hill that, when snow covered, can be a good starter or children’s slope to learn on. They also offer snow tubing when the weather is right! Straža does open for evening skiing when there is snow so it can be good, as it is in Bled, for an aprés-ski-ski.

Vogel – we decided to head for Vogel. It is the next valley over, in the Bohinj area (beautiful even if you are not skiing!) and it is about a 30 minute drive. This is a great resort for intermediate skiiers offering pistes of all different shapes and sizes. Ski hire is available at the top where the gondola arrives and is very competitive – all day hire of Skis, poles and boots is 30 euros!

Kerrie and I taking a traditional snow selfie at Vogel!

Lift pass is 30 euros for all day and also gets you a ride there and back from Bled on the Ski Bus. On top of that, it allows you to ski the other local resorts of  Kobla, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec, Soriska Planina, Stari Vrh and Straža.  That’s a good deal!

Vogel Ski Resort, Slovenia
Vogel Ski Resort, Slovenia

On the way to or from Vogel, or just in Bohinj, you shouldn’t miss a gem of a restaurant – Foksner. They have some incredible food in a quaint little timber cottage with really friendly staff. On top of that, it is probably one of the nicest burgers I have ever had in my life!

Bohinj is another beautiful mountain lake surrounded with small villages which host some great bars and restaurants too!

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia
Bohinj Lake, Slovenia

Tuesday we decided to go and have a proper look at Ljubljana. We left early and headed for the castle. The castle hill is a great vantage point to see the whole of the city. You can see from up there how it isn’t so much a city, more of a town.

Ljubljana has an arty, indie feel to it. The locals are really friendly and seem to want to help you with anything you need. We didn’t feel there was that much to see but it would be a great place to spend some relaxing days in the cozy bars and pubs.

We then headed across the border into Croatia. We have done Croatia before but only in the South, I have always wanted to see Zagreb and we decided now was the time to do it!

Zagreb is a great city, there is plenty to do and plenty to see. We came across an area by St. Mark’s Church (upper town) and walked down to the bottom of the hill where there is a nice baroque district with a market in the square on Sundays.

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb
St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb

Being science geeks, we really wanted to see the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum but it was closed when we went. Looks to be well worth a visit next time!

Another quirky museum that is much talked about in Zagreb is the Museum of Broken Relationships – it seems we missed a quirky experience there but next time, we will do it!

On our final day, we spent more time in Bled experiencing the Slovenian hospitality and as we had heavy snowfall the night before, decided to drive into the dramatic Triglav national park. This is a mountainous area to the immediate north of Bled which is at a higher altitude and we found a good loop to do (only if the road is safe, of course!)

Drive in a small circle out into Triglav and back down to Bled

Grand Hotel Toplice Review

After my initial scepticism from looking at their Booking.com profile, I have to admit I was wrong. The photos, in my opinion, make the hotel look dated and tired but this just isn’t the case.

Not to be too strong but this is probably one of the best hotels, from a guest experience point of view, I have stayed in when travelling Europe.

We arrived when it was dark and found the hotel reserved parking (of which there was plenty), that faced Lake Bled. We parked up and carried our luggage towards reception to check in. Their concierge came straight out and insisted he took our cases into the reception.

As you walk into reception, you can appreciate the elegance and class of the hotel. It is clean, light and polished, with a simple but classy decor.

The smiley concierge checked us in effortlessly and started asking us about what we had planned. I explained what we would like to see and immediately he started handing us out maps and tips for every place we wanted to see. He knew all the local attractions and advised us on best times to go. He knew his stuff!

We then went up to our room insisting, in true British style, to take our own cases. We went into the room and found it to be immaculate and well presented. The room had two double french doors onto the full-width stone balcony with charming wooden blind inner doors. The bed was huge and very comfortable.

The breakfast offered was in a huge variety and there was an additional menu of items the kitchen would make for you fresh. The breakfast is served in the restaurant with full width windows facing the lake.

There is a pool on there which is in a roman-column style surround and although it is not heated and only at room temperature, guests have complimentary access to Hotel Golf (virtually next door) which has a fully heated pool.

I can tell why world leaders choose to stay here as the hotel is exquisite, it even offers a stunning guest (and presidential 😉 ) lounge overlooking the lake from the first floor.

Having worked at a hotel, I am rarely such an easy critic to win but I would genuinely recommend this hotel to anyone going to Bled who can spend a little more money for a luxury hotel (at less than £100 a night, it is great value).

Overall, Slovenia was faultless as a short break destination. It is easily one of Europe’s top-10 destinations in my opinion and we will definitely be back!

Dan 🙂