Traveling to a cold climate in winter was never something that I considered given that the winters in
New York City can be so long and brutal, but I recently returned from a winter trip to Iceland. The trip exceeded my expectations in every single way and I’m actually seriously thinking of what cold climate I can travel to next winter.
Based on the experience from my trip I came up with my top 5 tips to make your winter trip to Iceland unforgettable.
1. Make your first stop the Blue Lagoon
Most flights from the east coast arrive at Keflavik airport very early in the morning. Even with a departure delay, our flight arrived around 6AM local time. Downtown Reykjavik is a 40 minute drive from the airport but the Blue Lagoon is only 20 minutes from the airport. Most hotels won’t allow you to check in so early without incurring additional charges so it only made sense to head straight to the Blue Lagoon after landing. However, it took some convincing from my friend that I was traveling with to get onboard with the plan because she had reservations about it being too dark when we arrived along with a lack of sleep.
However, booking one of the first time slots in the morning at the Blue Lagoon turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. When we arrived the lighting in the parking lot was dark and moody and when we went inside there was no line at all. We quickly changed, showered and locked our stuff away and were off to experience the hot springs. While there were some people in the lagoon when we arrived it didn’t feel over crowded or hectic which made for a very pleasant experience. However, by the time we left about 2-2.5 hours later it was a totally different scenario. People were everywhere and every towel hook was occupied.
If we had reservations for later in the day it would have been a very different experience and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much. I probably wouldn’t even have recommended it for others to visit but based on our experience it was one of the highlights of the trip.
2. Be flexible with your plans
I’m a planner and I can’t help it. I’ve gotten much better about not over planning trips but I need an itinerary and I’m not one to “just wing it”. With that said, on our second morning in Reykjavik we checked out of our hotel, the Hilton Reykjavik, and were about to set out to see what we had planned for day two which was the Golden Circle. I remember reading somewhere that if you plan to drive in Iceland in the winter it’s important to check the roads before heading out so as I was putting away my receipt I asked the front desk clerk how the roads were. I asked the question expecting a generic general answer however, he responded by telling me that the roads were closed, all of them! So, without the possibility of making it out of town without facing certain death, we decided to head back to downtown Reykjavik and take in some sights that we didn’t get to do the day before. The roads didn’t reopen until after sunset so we also had to figure out hotel arrangements for that night and had to cancel our other hotel without incurring any cancellation fees. We also had to rejigger our plans to make up for the “lost” day and I think given the circumstances things worked out well.
Bonus tip: Allot yourself more time to do the things you set out to do as you may be so taken by a waterfall or hot spring that you want to spend even more time there exploring or taking photos.
3. Go early and often if you want to see the Northern Lights
If you are like me, a key factor in your decision to visit Iceland in the winter is to see the northern lights, go early and go often should be your motto.
Seeing the northern lights is not a guaranteed phenomenon as several factors need to be in your favor. You need darkness, clear skies and solar activity. Given that the weather in Iceland can be as temperamental as a 2-year old it’s important to try to see the auroras as many times as you can to increase your chances. There is also a website that you can check to see what the solar activity is for the day and what the chances of seeing the aurora are, however, even if the website says that the chances are low, if you have clear skies there is still a chance that you may be to see them. And if you have a camera and know how to adjust the settings in low light your camera sensor may be able to pick up the aurora activity better than the naked eye.
We ended up going out to try to see the northern lights four out of the five nights that we were they and we ended up seeing them three times. After seeing them the first night we almost became addicted to chasing them and trying to see them again.
4. Drive safely
I don’t know if it was just our luck, the time of year that we visited, or what but outside of Reykjavik was a veritable winter wonderland. Every landscape and surface was covered in snow and ice including the roads. I’ve driven in snow before but what I’ve never intentionally driven on before were roads that were just sheets of ice. Thankfully I wasn’t navigating six lane highways so I could drive at a slower speed but some of the other drivers would zip around me at speeds that wouldn’t be deemed safe on a non-ice covered road.
What also made driving challenging is that the weather changes quickly in Iceland. During one part of our trip from Reykjavik to Vik to visit Skaftafell the roads and sky were clear. After driving a while the roads became a little more treacherous but still manageable. However, about 10 kilometers away from Skaftafell, after driving for over two hours, fog started rolling in and snow flurries began to fall. After a few minutes the fog got thicker until we eventually experienced whiteout conditions for the final few kilometers of our drive. We finally arrived safely at Skaftafell and that evening when we checked into our hotel I had to have a drink to take the edge off from the day’s intense drive.
During our trip, we did see several cars get stuck in snow banks or pulled over to the side of the road. On our final full day in the country on our way back to Vik we encountered an accident on one side of a bridge that stopped traffic for almost an hour and a half. We saw the car that was involved in the accident and it was a surprise that no one was seriously hurt.
5. Crampons are king
In my last blog post I wrote all about my packing list for Iceland and I can safely say that all the items on that list were used and came in handy during my travels. However, one eagle eyed reader pointed out that item #5 was missing from the list. What should have taken the place of missing #5 was a pair of crampons. I wavered back and forth about purchasing them because most of my research said they weren’t necessary but I ultimately decided to buy a pair and let me tell you that they came in clutch. I ended up wearing the crampons almost every day of the trip. On the day that we decided to visit the Dyrhólaey lighthouse I left my crampons in the car. From where we parked the ground looked safe and ice free but as we progressed up the steep hill I quickly realized that I made the wrong call. Instead of turning back to get them I tried to venture on but as the hill got steeper things also got icier. Unfortunately, we decided to abort the mission for fear of falling and breaking something and from that moment forward my crampons were in my backpack at the ready any time I ventured out.
In about a week I’ll be heading to Iceland and I’m very excited about this trip and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. Since it’s still winter in Iceland I need to make sure that I pack appropriately to ensure that I stay sufficiently warm and dry when out exploring the land of fire and ice. I’ve done a lot of research on how to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter and I think I’ve just about finalized my packing list. I even had a chance to put these items to the test during the arctic freeze that hovered over New York City for about two weeks in late December. Doing several trial runs has allowed me to perfect my layering technique and get it down to a science. So, without further ado, here’s my packing list for my trip to Iceland.
Wool Base Layer Tights
I bought these Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer bottoms, the warmest base layer the brand offers, to wear under my pants. When I tried them on for the first time I was impressed with how soft and non-itchy they were, and when I put them to the test here in NYC they were impressively warm. I’m packing two pair of these and an additional pair of black fleece lined tights that can do double duty under a skirt I may pack.
One of my go to cold weather staples are my fleece lined pants and leggings. I had an old pair from Athlete and recently purchased their updated version and the cut is even better. When the weather dips below freezing here I just throw them on and I don’t have to worry about being cold. If it gets extra cold in Iceland I’ll add a base layer underneath and I should be all set.
Base Layer Tops
I’m packing four base layer tops for extra warmth. I have two mid-weight 100% wool tops from Icebreaker which are not only practical but also stylish. Even though they are 100% wool they are itchy at all. The other layering tops I'm bringing are the synthetic Heattech tops from Uniglo. I was skeptical at first about their ability to keep me warm but they came in clutch during my weekend trip to Washington D.C. last month.
As my mid-layer I plan to pack two of my warmest cashmere sweaters. The great thing about cashmere is that they offer unparalleled warmth in my opinion, without the bulk. I plan to wear another wool sweater for the flight and plan to leave room for the purchase of an authentic Icelandic sweater while I’m there.
There’s nothing worse than having cold feet which is why I’m packing all of the wool socks I can while still managing to fit everything into a carry-on bag. I’ve been a fan of SmartWool socks for travel and everything in between since my trip to Tanzania. I’m packing four pairs of their thickest crew wool socks and several other lighter pairs in various lengths. Even though I’ll only be there for six days the plan is to pack several extra pairs of socks
Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a scarf person.I practically have a closet full of scarves and while I will still pack a couple of scarves I’m going to supplement things with a neck gaiter. I’m hoping the gaiter will prevent my face from literally freezing off.
A headlamp will come in handy when I’m out in the middle of nowhere hunting for the the northern lights. What could possibly be worse than seeing the northern lights but not having enough light to see the dials on my camera to capture a treasured photograph.
Winter CoatA warm winter coat is a must and this convertible number from The North Face is perfect for temperamental Icelandic weather. This jacket has a waterproof outer and a lightweight liner. Each component can be worn separately or all together to protect from all of the elements.
I don’t think these really need any explanation. Just in case, I’m bringing a pair of snow boots in case I encounter any snowy terrain and want to avoid my feet getting cold and wet.
I bought these to slip over my shoes for extra traction on icy terrains. I may not need them while I’m there but the odds of my needing them would increase to 100% if I didn’t bring them.
As it can be quite rainy and windy in Iceland I’m bringing a pair of waterproof pants to throw on top of whatever I’m wearing in case it starts to rain or in case I decide to get too close to a waterfall. This pair that I purchased from Marmot, while not the most fashion forward, are pretty practical because of the full side zip meaning that I can get in and out of them in a jiffy before the fashion police come and haul me away.
Hand and Feet Warmers
Cold hands can’t work a camera and cold feet can’t walk to the location of a good photo opportunity. So I purchased these guys to tuck into my boots and in my pockets for a little extra warmth.
Be sure to check out my blog posts here and here for some general packing tips.
Now that 2018 is underway I decided to put together my 2018 travel wishlist. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to make all of these trips this year but I think it’s good to have a running list of places that I would like to visit.
My first trip of the new year will be a long weekend in Washington D.C. over MLK weekend. I really enjoyed my recent trip two years ago and decided to go back since there are some things I didn’t get to see the last time I was there. There are also quite a few sights that I visited last time that I’d like to see again this time. I’m also looking forward to eating at Thai-Xing once again and getting gluten free cupcakes from Baked & Wired. I’ll be staying at the Kimpton Mason & Rook for the first time and looking forward to exploring that neighborhood a little bit more.
Seeing the northern lights has been high on my bucket list for quite some time now. I really wanted visit Iceland back in 2017 because I read that it was a good year to see the northern lights due to solar activity but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards. I also read that solar activity is expected to decline over then next 10 years leading to fewer opportunities to see the northern lights so I made it a priority to travel to Iceland this year. Tickets are booked for February and the itinerary is finalized and I just have to not get too hyped about it while I wait for the date to arrive.
France and Italy
Every year for the past 10 years the maternal unit and I have traveled internationally together. We will be mid trip and she’ll ask “Jas where are we going next year”. It’s a lot of pressure but I’ve never backed down from the challenge. On our first trip she visited me in Paris and then we made our way to Barcelona and Rome. This year, for the 10th anniversary of our travels together I’d like to go back to France and Italy with her but this time to see the lavender fields in Provence and possibly making our way to Cinque Terre in Italy. I plan to start working on the itinerary soon and am looking forward to the trip.
There’s a possibility that I may have to travel in early spring to Krakow for a business trip.
I’ve been Krakow before but that was nearly 15 years ago and I’m sure a lot has changed since then. I’d like to incorporate a stopover somewhere else in Europe during this trip and I’m leaning towards Paris but more realistically it may end up in Munich or Frankfurt. We shall see what happens.
Portugal was at the top of my list of places to visit a few years back but the maternal unit and I ended up going to Tanzania instead. While I have no regrets about that decision, Portugal is still very high on my list of places I wish to visit in the short term. I’ve been hearing a lot more buzz about Portugal lately so I think it makes sense to scope the place out for future clients. I’ve also seen some amazing photos of Portugal and that’s something that I always look for when considering a travel destination. Realistically though I’m not sure if this is a trip that I’ll be able to make in 2018 but I’m keeping it on my wishlist because who knows what can happen when you dream big.
If someone would have told me two years ago that I would fall in love with safaris I wouldn’t believe them. However, my first safari in Tanzania was so amazing that a fire has been ignited inside of me that I would love to be able to experience a safari once a year. Botswana is on my list because of it’s unique terrains, including the desert, woodlands and the Okavango delta and is know for its large elephant herds. One other thing that makes Botswana a unique place for a safari is the country’s conservation philosophy which emphasizes low-volume, high-revenue tourism which leads to significant benefits for the local communities. I probably shouldn’t even include Botswana in this list because it’s such a pipe dream but I figured why not. If it doesn’t happen this year I can reprioritize it and add it to the list again another year.
For a very long time I’ve listened to people tell about how great Austin is however, I wasn't having any of it. At the time my priority was international trips because I could fly to Europe for the same price of some domestic air tickets. This year my priorities changed and the stars aligned so I finally decided to go. I told my travel buddy CY about my plans and and is the case lately she decided to join in on the fun. Once we arrived at the airport I whizzed through security in no time flat because I have TSA Pre Check but CY unfortunately does not (between you and me that’s going to have to change if we’re going to continue traveling together). Our flight was on Delta and when we got to the gate they asked for volunteers to be bumped to the next flight and I dutifully volunteered myself and CY as tributes for $800 each in return. Unfortunately, once they started boarding they no longer needed the extra seats so we were both out of the $800 that we had already spent in our heads on future travel plans.
The flight from Newark to Austin was fairly short but I was kind of bummed that the WiFi on the flight didn’t work and we ended up forking over $10 to pay for DirectTV. We arrived in Austin and since both CY and I were #teamcarryon that day we were able to exit the airport pretty quickly and hail a Lyft to the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt. Kimpton hotels are one of my preferred properties when traveling domestically. I love the design aesthetic of their hotels without feeling too stuffy and pretentious and the Van Zandt was no exception. The check in process was fairly smooth and before we knew it we headed up to our lake view room. If there was one thing I would change about the room it would be that you almost need to be a bodybuilder to be able to open and close the bathroom door. But other than that everything else was pleasant. Despite it being a little too cool to swim in the outdoor pool we did take advantage of hanging out on the pool deck to catch the sunset and enjoy some cocktails by the fire.
The highlight of my Austin trip was definitely getting to hang out with my friend and Austin native Sarah. Sarah and I met another lifetime ago when we were both living in Paris and bonded over artisanal cocktails (before they were even a thing), good wine, and enjoying being expats in a beautiful city. Thanks to her, CY and I really got the inside scoop on some great places to check out while in Austin. Without her inside knowledge we would have never tried the delicious tacos at the Quickie Pickie, an East Austin institution and she came in clutch when I suggested that we grab a quick drink at a random bar near our hotel on Rainey Street. Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with Rainey Street but Sarah knew that it wasn’t quite my style so we ended up at Ah Sing Den instead for some delicious cocktails on their outdoor patio area.
In addition to hanging out with Sarah, here's a list of my top five Austin highlights:
Laguna Gloria - Contemporary Austin
Laguna Gloria is an outdoor sculpture park that offers mix of nature, art and history all in one. There’s also a beautiful villa on the grounds which you can walk around, explore and photograph. We visited on our first day in Austin and it was the perfect remedy to being cooped up on a plane for almost four hours. It didn’t hurt that we had perfect weather that day.
SPUN Ice cream
At SPUN they make your ice cream fresh and made to order using seasonal and locally grown ingredients. The best part of the process is watching them turn the ingredients into ice cream using liquid nitrogen.
After a little shopping at some of the quaint shops on E. 11th St. in East Austin such as Olive and Take Heart, Blue Dahlia was the perfect quaint little bistro to stop and have some lunch. What made their menu even more enticing is that they offered a gluten free option for all of their tartines which was a huge win for me.
Tillery Street Plant Co.
One thing I noticed while in Austin is that almost every place we went to had an array of cacti and or succulents on display as decoration and I think the Tillery Street Plant Co. is to blame. It was such a treat to visit as they had a wide selection of plants for sale and the layout almost made it feel like you are in a secret garden. It’s so nice that I didn’t mind that CY spent over an hour picking out two new succulents to bring home.
Hotel San Jose
Everyone knows that a visit to Austin isn’t complete without a stroll down South Congress. But when you need a break from all the shopping and sightseeing Hotel San José has the perfect court yard/pool area to pop into to rest and grab a cold drink or cocktail.
I couldn't think of a better way to end my travels for the year than catching up with a great friend that I don’t get to see often and aren’t in touch as often as I should be. She truly made my trip to Austin special and I’ll definitely be back to see her and her beautiful family and check out the list of places I didn't get to visit. In the meantime Austin, can you please work on some mass transit options because I spent way too much money on Lyft rides.
This year I decided that I wanted to travel more domestically so I planned a west coast road trip starting in Las Vegas with my mom since she recently retired and had a lot of time on her hands. When I told my friend CY of my road trip plans she invited herself along and I obliged. In Las Vegas CY offered to hang out in the evenings after my mom went to bed but obviously she's never seen the maternal unit at a casino in front of a winning 5 cent slot machine because that woman can put us all to shame. I usually alternate between Blackjack and the 5 cent Sex and the City slot machine, just call me a high roller! I did luck out on our first evening there pocketing $500 in winnings off of the slots! After the shenanigans in Vegas we rented a Mustang convertible and hit the open road. First stop was for a photo op of the temporary art exhibit Seven Magic Mountains right outside of Las Vegas which will only be around for another five months or so. It's really just a bunch of colorful rocks stacked on top of each other but to see something so colorful against the desert backdrop is really something.
After the pitstop we made our way to the Grand Canyon and took a slight detour to drive the famous Route 66 from Kingsman, AZ to Seligman, AZ. Driving the open road taught me several important lessons 1) always have at least a half of tank of gas in the car because you don’t know when you’ll pass the next gas station 2) eat when you can because you don’t know when you’ll pass another place that you can grab a bite to eat 3) cellphone service is spotty at best and shouldn’t be depended on for navigation. Despite these lessons we made it to the Grand Canyon safely and soaked in some awe inspiring views. As the itinerary only allotted one day in the Grand Canyon (rookie mistake), we work up before dawn to catch the sunrise in the park #goals.
We left the Grand Canyon and then made our way to Page, AZ to visit Lower Antelope Canyon. Though we had to wait a bit outside in the heat before making our way to the canyon the wait was totally worth it. I hadn’t see such sandstone formations before in my life and the vibrant orange hues were otherworldly and all of the pictures you see on the internet don't do it justice. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to actually visit this year.
Instead of spending the evening in Page,AZ or flying straight back to New York we drove another 3 hours to Sedona, AZ to spend a couple of days there for some R&R. As we made our way towards Sedona there was a very interesting mountain road with switchbacks that looked like someone’s intestines when viewed on Google Maps. Had I known the road to Sedona would be so treacherous I may have reconsidered but I really wanted to stay at the Kimpton Amara Resort and Spa as I’m a huge fan of Kimpton properties and generally plan my domestic trips around where they have properties. Needless to say, I’m thrilled about their international expansion. Our stay there was fantastic and I would go back solely for their specialty margaritas.
Copenhagen totally exceeded all of my expectations and is one of a handful of cities that I would love to visit again sooner rather than later. For a more detailed account of my trip check out my blog post about my visit here and here. And since this is such a short post here are some more pics from that trip. If you want to see more of my photos be sure to follow me on Instagram.
Professional development is important, regardless of what industry one works in, which is why I attended the New York Times Travel Show here in New York City back in January. I learned so much during the one day industry conference that when I learned of the Travel Leaders Network International Conference in Orlando I immediately signed up.
While Orlando isn’t a place that was at the top of my list to return to, I went because I knew the learning and networking opportunities would be worth it. For three days, I attended various sessions on travel related topics from industry insiders and suppliers. One fun perk on this trip is that the conference attendees had free private access to Universal Studios one evening. We had the chance to go on all the rides without any lines and when we tired of that we could stop at one of the free food or drink stations.
Part two of my year in review series takes us to my unforgettable birthday trip to South Africa.
After my safari to Tanzania last year I was determined to go on another safari to celebrate my 40th birthday this year. In my mind it only made sense since I already had the clothing and equipment necessary for a safari. The first leg of our trip was in Johannesburg and we stayed at the lovely at the African Pride Melrose Arch hotel. The hotel did not disappoint and the location in the Melrose Arch district could not be beat as we were within walking distance to many shops and restaurants. In JoBerg we visited all of the highlights including emotional visits to Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum and Soweto. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to Robbin Island as the weather did not cooperate. After a couple of days in JoBerg we drove to Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge for a four day safari. Although I originally had my mind set on doing a safari in the greater Kruger area (Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Thornybush) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay at the 5-star Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge which was top notch all the way including the accommodations, food, service and safari guides. They were even able to accommodate vegetarian options for each meal which I greatly appreciated.
One difference between this safari and my previous one is that we stayed at one lodge and we had two game drives a day instead of being out almost all day which made for a more relaxing pace . On top of that Madikwe Game Reserve is much smaller than Kruger and the Serengeti so we had great up close viewing of the animals. During our game drives we were lucky to have several sightings of rare African wild dogs. One of the sightings even included them taking down a bush buck and eating it for breakfast! Another highlight of the trip, albeit much less gruesome, was seeing a pride of female lions and their five cubs during an evening drive. Unfortunately, as things in the bush can be unpredictable, our jeep got stuck and we ended up a little too close to the pride for my comfort as night was falling. Because I had watched Mygrations on NatGeo I didn’t panic because according to that reality show all we had to do was light a fire to keep the predators at bay. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that and another jeep arrived to take us away from the danger zone. Saying I had several glasses of wine that evening is an understatement. Other adventures while on the safari include being warned of the presence of scorpions and actually seeing one while at dinner (it didn’t look anything like what I thought a scorpion would look like) and hearing about a black mamba sighting, the world’s deadliest snake, by a couple that was on safari with us.
After surviving four days in the bush we flew to Cape Town for a change of pace and no wildlife threats.In Cape Town we visited the colorful Bo-Kaap and the beautiful and thriving Victoria & Alfred. We also organized a private tour went to Seal Island to see a colony of seals and then made our way to Boulders Beach to see penguins and made a must visit stop to the very windy Cape of Good Hope. On our last full day in Cape Town we did a wine tour of the amazingly beautiful Stellenbosh and capped off the trip with a delicious lunch at the Delaire Graffee Estate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba. My grandfather is Cuban and he always told us stories about Cuba when growing up. He also told us crazy stories about his time as a Merchant Marine but that’s a story for another blog post.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting Cuba and it was an experience like no other. In many ways it was like stepping back in time to a bygone era. However, that’s not to say that the trip was without its challenges. For one, despite the many non-American tourists that have been visiting Cuba for years, the tourism infrastructure isn’t as built up as it is in other tourist destinations. So one has to rely on “collectivo” taxis to get from one place to another in Havana and they can be pricey and hard to come by. Additionally, traveling from a place where one has 24/7 access to the internet to a place with limited internet access also posed a lot of challenges. Unfortunately, I missed a few events that I planned to attend due to not planning thoroughly enough considering the lack of internet. Overall though the trip was very enriching and I was fortunate to meet some friendly locals whom I shared delicious meals and interesting conversations with.
Lastly, if I’m keeping it real here are a few other highlights/lowlights of my trip:
The country left such a great impression on me that I would love to go back. Unfortunately, given the recent policy changes I'm not sure if I will be able to make that a reality any time soon.
I don’t always have the most noble intentions when choosing which country to travel to. For instance, I chose to visit Istanbul because I wanted to get my hands on reasonably priced Turkish towels and to eat as much baklava as I possibly could (I can happily say that I succeeded on both counts). Couple that with the fact that I had several friends that visited Istanbul that raved about their trips, and I didn’t want to miss out on a similar experience so I booked a trip as well.
Reflecting on my trip, my visit to Istanbul left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I really enjoyed seeing all of the historical sites and mosques and some of my favorite photographs to date are from that trip. However, when I returned home and people asked me about my trip I wasn’t filled with my usual excitement and when people asked me about my trip I really wasn’t sure what to tell them.
With that said, here’s a small taste of my trip to Istanbul and a few stories that I’m ready to share with you dear readers.
The Turkish Ritual Bath aka Waterboarding Lite As I Like to Call It
After a long international flight we eventually arrived at our hotel pretty beat from our travels. However, we only had time to freshen up and take a brief nap because I had booked services at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami prior to leaving NYC for later that afternoon. So, we rested a bit and grabbed a taxi to the hamam. After arriving, we checked in with the attendants and I thought I had booked massages online but it turns out we were going to experience a traditional Turkish bath ritual instead. I had to mentally switch gears and prepare for my first hamam which wasn’t such a big deal because when in Turkey right? After checking in we were guided to the changing rooms and since I’m a bit prudish I opted to change into my bikini instead of entering the bathing area topless. Once changed we were escorted inside of the official bathing area. Step one, sit on heated marble stone for 10 minutes. Seemed harmless enough except I couldn’t help but feeling like a pet iguana basking on a heat rock. Ten minutes pass, I’m still alive and it’s time for the bathing part. My attendant came over and instructed me to sit on a marble stool with a faucet behind and with almost no warning she started to scrub my skin with a special exfoliating mitten. I’m almost certain at least five layers of my dead skin cells ended up on that mitten. Step three was the sudsing process, now I don’t know what kind of soap they used but it had unearthly sudsing properties. Along with the sudsing was more scrubbing and I shed an additional five layers of dead skin. When that was all done it was time for the rinsing and by this time the woman had warmed up to me slightly or so I thought. As I was sitting there she asked me where I was from and when I replied that I was from the US I had an ice cold bucket of water poured over my face. Now I’m not saying she was anti-American but the timing of it makes me wonder because it almost felt as if I was being waterboarded. There were more and more buckets of cold water until I was finally suds free and at which point I was wrapped in a cozy Turkish towel. The whole process was pretty humorous and intense and I’d totally do it again because I walked out of there with the softest skin ever.
On our second day in Istanbul we had a pretty aggressive schedule which included visiting the Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sopia. The visit to the Cistern was interesting yet uneventful and then we headed to the Blue Mosque. As we were approaching I heard someone call out “my chocolate” which I ignored for many reasons. Many reasons! However, the yelling of “my chocolate, my chocolate” didn’t stop and the culprit quickly approached us and offered his services to give us a tour of the mosque for a fee of course, which we politely declined because a) he called me “my chocolate” and b) I wasn’t looking to pay for a guided tour.
After sightseeing for the day we headed back to our hotel and passed a shop along the way. And once again I hear calls of “my chocolate, my chocolate” this time I couldn’t feign ignorance because it was the second time it happened that day. The culprit was one of the shop workers who went on and on about how beautiful my complexion was and how he was looking for a woman exactly like me. Uhm, ok! I entertained the banter as long as I could and had to promise to stop by the shop the following day just to be able to leave.
This situation played out daily for the duration of my trip in Istanbul. It got to a point that I started to avoid the main road back to the hotel so I wouldn’t have to deal with the men and shop owners on that strip. Don’t get me wrong, the men weren’t aggressive but I had no idea that someone with my complexion in Istanbul would garner such attention.
The Grand Bizarre
It was day four or five of our trip and it was time to visit the Grand Bazaar because no trip is complete in my book without visiting the various markets. The one exception being the meat market again, because, reasons. So when it comes to visiting a market I usually have the endurance of a trained athlete, the sense of direction of a GPS system and the haggling skills of a professional. However, I was off my game almost as soon as we entered the Grand Bazaar and soon started to not feel well. So after a brief visit to only a few shops we started to make our way out of the bustling marketplace. On our way out a much older woman wearing all black with a hijab covering her head walked up to me and grabbed my face. She didn’t say anything but I was taken aback by the experience and after she walked away I turned around to look at my mother and noticed her doing the same thing to her. My mother claims that the woman said “pretty, pretty” as she touched her face but I’m still a little skeptical. We finally made our way out of the bazaar and stopped at the much calmer Istanbul Pashmina Mollafenari Mahallesi, Çarşıkapı Caddesi 24/A, 34126 Fatih to recuperate and after a good while walked out of there with one of my favorite scarves to date.
Later that evening as we were strolling around a man came up to me and handed me his phone as if to indicate he wanted me to take his picture which didn’t seem too unusual because people often ask me to take their photo. To my surprise however, he wasn’t interested in me taking his photo but instead a selfie of the two of us together. Say what now? A selfie with a stranger nah fam I’m not about that life.
That pretty much summed up my trip to Istanbul. My reception in the south in Antalya was more muted and for some reason people kept asking if I was French which I didn’t mind in the slightest. Will I go back to Istanbul? I would because I’d know what to expect for one, and maybe stay in a different neighborhood to see what effect that would have on my trip.