In search of Vikings (and Northern Lights): a wintry visit to Iceland with kids

In search of Vikings (and Northern Lights): a wintry visit to Iceland with kids

I’ve always liked Vikings.  When I was a kid my friend had a toy castle that folded like a metal briefcase.  When it was opened it revealed scenes of village life painted inside; animals and fire rings, water wells and peasants carrying buckets.  There was a plastic drawbridge that fit into the opening by the hinge and the set came with a bunch of small plastic knights and Vikings.  The Vikings looked tough.  They were molded in green plastic and had long swords and round shields and wore helmets with horns sticking out of them.  Over and over my friend and I would have the Vikings lay waste to the weakling knights and plunder and pillage that village.

A boy with a spear and a shield at the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik

Viking Jonah storming the castle

When we learned in school about the European discovery of North America, Erik the Red and Leif Ericsson got brief mention as having sailed out of the North Atlantic in open long boats to disembark at some far off point in modern day Canada they called Vinland.  This was centuries before Columbus brought disease and clothes to the natives in the Caribbean.  The little that was known about these Viking adventurers – and their cool names – added to their mystique.

Recently, I had a chance to revisit the Viking fancies of my youth.  As Thanksgiving approached, my wife and I contemplated something to do besides make the long drive to New Jersey in stop-and-go traffic just to eat dry turkey and watch 8-hours of American football.  During the course of these dinner-table conversations, my 11-year-old daughter mentioned Iceland. My 9-year-old son was intrigued by the Viking tales.  As my wife and I did our research, we realized there were a lot of cool things that we could do in a six-day visit to Iceland with kids.  Juxtaposed against the drudgery that awaited us in New Jersey, the choice became apparent.  We flew to Iceland.

We touched down at Keflavík International Airport, about 50 kilometers outside Reykjavik, on Friday morning.  My wife had had the brilliant idea to use accumulated credit card points to knock more than a few dollars off the cost of airline tickets.  A few years ago she was able to get us all to Hawaii for free using airline miles we had racked up on our various cards.  There is definitely an art to the use of credit card rewards programs and this was just my wife’s latest masterpiece.

Our introduction to the weather came shortly after we landed.  It was what you might expect of a place called Iceland – midnight dark, despite it being 7:30 in the morning; cold, wind, rain.  Combined with the fact that we had no map, only rudimentary directions to our destination, and encountered fog as thick as molasses, you might say we were like those first Vikings that went off in search of new land – hopeful we would not dieBut roads are few in Iceland, and well-marked at that.  We found our Vinland.

[Tweet “we were like those first Vikings that went off in search of new land – hopeful we would not die”]

Reykjavik is the northernmost European capital and home to two-thirds of the nearly 322,000 hearty souls that call Iceland home. One of the things we hoped to see during our visit was the Northern Lights.  While you can take a several hours long bus tour outside the umbrella of light pollution generated by the city, there needs to be both dark and clear skies in order to view this naturally occurring phenomenon.  We were fairly certain it would be dark – the sun rises at 10:00 a.m. and sets at 4:00 p.m. this time of year – but we were less certain that skies would be clear during the window of time we would be on a tour.  Instead, we decided our best chance of seeing the Lights would be if we “lived” outside the city during part of our stay.

Airbnb offers many choices in the hinterlands of Iceland, but we settled on a 2-bedroom cottage with a kitchen where we could cook some meals and a hot tub where we could soak and watch the skies.  Our family has adopted the travel philosophy of not trying to do too many things in one day.  This makes for more agreeable children and happier parents.  Because the cottage was centrally located to the Golden Circle – Iceland’s triumvirate of must-see tourist attractions: Geysir, Gullfloss, and Þingvellir – it was easy for us to do day trips.  We also had a fun time floating around in the 100 degree waters of another local attraction – the Secret Lagoon in Fludir – the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, dating from 1871.
The Secret Lagoon

We had read about the laxity of Icelandic safety standards and they lived up to their reputation.  At Geysir, a 90 meter jet of water shoots into the sky and rains boiling water down on the spectators who are separated from the bubbling pool by an ankle-high rope more suitable for tripping inattentive visitors than discouraging interlopers.  At Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland’s most visited waterfall, you can get so close to the water that you may as well be wearing your bathing suit.

Family photo at Gulfoss - Copy

We were never really at risk of injury, and it actually made our experience at these sites a bit more fun in that was more organic.  We were free to wander with no one in charge of telling us were to go or when; which had its advantages.   For example, at Þingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I unwittingly managed to drive our rental car up the pedestrian path, past the drowning pool and the hallowed Law Rock where the country’s first parliament met, and into the rift valley created by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  I parked where the path dead-ended in mountain.  It was a Griswold moment for sure, but the kids were happy because they didn’t have to walk.

[Tweet ” It was a Griswold moment for sure, but the kids were happy because they didn’t have to walk.”]
Selfie with wife at Pingvellir - Copy

Though the country skies never turned clear enough for us to view the Northern Lights, on Monday we moved our party to Reykjavik.  We rented a 3-bedroom apartment just a short walk from the popular pedestrian street Laugavegur.

A girl and her hot dog in Reykjavik - Iceland with kids

Maya and a dog with the works

Smekkleysa - or Bad Taste - Record Shop in Rekyjavik

Reykjavik, something for everyone

This street originates from the main plaza of the old city, which is also the location of Reykjavík 871±2 (The Settlement Exhibition)We spent a fun afternoon in the museum learning the story of the settlement of Reykjavik through the excavation of a long house dating from 930 A.D. and some very cool interactive displays.  Admission is free for children under age 12 and there was a corner of the lobby devoted to period games for the kids to play and props for them to handle.  Many of the attractions we visited during our trip admitted children free, and the kids even rode the shuttle bus to the airport at no charge.

We spent a lot of time prowling the souvenir shops along Laugavegur.  Our tendency to always want to look in the next shop for a cheaper price, which we have passed on to our kids, means we end up doing more looking than buying.  We took home a few rocks that we picked up in the country and the jaw from a lamb that we ate for dinner as mementos for ourselves.  [Very Viking of you – ed.]Those on our Christmas list got more traditional Icelandic handicrafts.

The clock tower in the Hallgrímskirkja, the church that looks like a space shuttle, offers 360-degree views of the city (and, although it is the one place I can remember that charges children admission, the view was worth the slight price).  Outside the church is a statute of Leif Ericsson – a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Icelandic Parliament (the site of which, as detailed above, I drove our rental car through).  It’s one of the lasting images of the trip – the Viking explorer stands high on his pedestal looking westward across the ocean, one foot forward, and with his sword on his hip and long hair and furs draped over his shoulders.  He looks as cool as I always imagined he would.

While we planted our flag in Iceland, it seems we will have to visit again to fulfill our mission of seeing the Northern Lights.  Though on second thought, perhaps next time we’ll plan our trip for summer.  After all, it would be pretty cool to experience 24-hours of sun.

Paul Carlino is a regular contributor to All Over the Map. 

Paul Carlino, 44 years old, attorney, married with children.  For a long time I thought traveling meant rolling out into bumper to bumper traffic bound for the NJ shore.  Then I met this amazing gal who got me on a plane to India, packed me on a camel, and rode me out into the Thar desert.  Overcome by the heat and surrounded by dung beetles, I proposed marriage and life has turned out not like I expected but with everything I wanted.  Yeah, we have the mortgage, the kids, and do the nine-to-five thing; but we dream bigger than that. 

Planning a family vacation? Great Deals for 2015

Planning a family vacation? Great Deals for 2015

When you are planning a family vacation, the costs can add up very quickly. Even the best deals don’t sound cheap anymore when you multiply them by 4, 5, 6 or more. At the recent New York Times Travel show, I had the chance to speak with representatives of destinations and travel companies from around the world to find out the latest and the greatest deals for families, and the newest trends in family travel.

I dodged the dancing girls from Indonesia, the feather-clad dancers from Brazil, the big brown bear from Taiwan, and someone dressed as a stack of vegetables (something to do with Expo Milano 2015), to dig deep and find you all the best deals for families this year.

The bear from Taiwan with Paige

Great Deals for Family Travel

Children Travel Free on Eurail

Eurail, the rail pass for travel throughout 28 countries in Europe, has launched its new “Children Travel Free” initiative, which allows up to two children ages 4 to 11 to ride for free with each family member or friend who is traveling on an Adult Eurail Pass.

We are rather partial to traveling on Eurail Passes, having done so as kids, and then again as adults with our kids.

Also new this year from Eurail is the Attica Pass, which offers travel around the Greek Islands by ferry. It offers six ferry crossings within one month, including the high-speed ferry from Italy to Greece and back.

Even Older Children Travel Free to Tahiti

For a limited time, 2 children up to age 15 can travel free with 2 adults on Air Tahiti Nui’s flights from Los Angeles, paying only government taxes. Current round trip prices start at $1672 (with taxes of $63), so this is some serious savings! For a family of four you’re saving more than $3000 with this deal. The airline representatives I met at the travel show said that they took this step because many of the resorts in Tahiti offer similar discounts for children up to age 15. So let’s not think of Tahiti as just a honeymoon destination. Maybe you can afford to take the kids after all!

Check their website for details.

Low Fares on New Flights to Iceland (and Beyond)

Iceland’s new Wow Air is offering super-low rates on their new flights from Boston and Baltimore/Washington to Reykjavik (from $149 and $165 one way) and London (from $202 and $240 one way).

Of course, like most low-cost airlines, there are some tricks to this low fare. You will have to pay extra to check a bag, and only one carry-on bag weighing 11 pounds or less is included in the fare. Also, the flight back from Europe might not be so cheap. When I checked, I could not find a return flight from either Reykjavik or London for the same low fare.

wow air logo and jetIn any case, I could see from my explorations that travel companies and destinations are giving some thought to family travelers, and they are creating deals for families to lure them in and make it more affordable to take the whole clan.

Have you seen any great deals lately? Let us know in the comments below.

We can help you plan a perfect family vacation

Don’t forget that we offer family travel coaching services to help you plan your perfect family vacation. Contact us and tell us what you like to do, where you want to go, and when you have time to go there, and we will take it from there. Take at look at our travel coaching page for more information.

Our First Month on the Road: a kid’s view of our family RTW trip

Our First Month on the Road: a kid’s view of our family RTW trip

Here’s a recap of our first month on the road from twelve-year-old Magnolia. See how she feels about our family RTW trip.

Our First Month on the Road

by Magnolia

Our first month on the road has been great! We started in Iceland, then Portugal, Spain, England, and now Scotland. It’s been tiring and hard, but really fun.

Iceland was cool, we went on a tour of a lot of the natural sights on our first day, which was extremely cold and wet, but very interesting. Our second day was a bit better, less rainy but just as cold. We went to the Blue Lagoon Spa, which was basically a huge natural hot tub. It felt amazing in the water! We only stayed there for two days, which I was quite thankful for. The sights were great, but I think I could only stand that weather for a few days.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Our next stop was Portugal, where the weather was much better. We were there only for Mom’s travel blogger conference, so Calla and I spent most of our time in the hotel room watching TV. We had a little time out of the room, so we walked around a bit, saw some of the amazing architecture, and met up with a family Mom met through CouchSurfing. One of my favorite parts of the Portugal section of our trip was when we went on a teleferic, a ski-lift sort of thing, where we got to see all of the beautiful town from high above.

On the teleferico in Porto

After our relaxing time in Portugal, I expected to be well rested and ready to make the most of our time in Spain. Nope! After we met our first host family in a small town outside of Madrid, we took long naps almost right until it was time for dinner. All of the meals we had there were awesome! A few days of our week with that family, we took day trips to Madrid. It was really cool. There was a lot of good shopping, but I think the main highlight was all the museums. They were gigantic! On both of the days there, we got to see our first grade Spanish teacher, Sra. Mooney. It was absolutely wonderful to see her after so many years!

Reunion with our first grade teacher

After Madrid, we headed to Dueñas, a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere.  Our hosts were really nice, and I liked how the town was all together, so you could walk for half an hour and almost see everything!  Our hosts had so much planned for us! We saw the churches, a church choir, and all of the amazing sights we could!

After climbing the church tower with our CouchSurfing hostAt Aljaferia in Zaragoza

The next morning, we left to go to Girona, for another one of Mom’s travel blogger conferences. It was very pretty and had a lot of interesting history. There was an awesome ice cream place that we went to where I got delicious white chocolate and coffee ice cream. It may have been the best ice cream I’ve ever had!

Doing the splits in Girona

We then spent a week in Garriguella, a small town in the Costa Brava area of Spain. Mom’s conference provided a place to stay afterwards, so we got a huge house to stay in for a week. There  were 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a huge family room with a big TV, a pool, and a big backyard, with ACTUAL GRASS so i could finally practice my gymnastics! It was a great house, but Calla and I were convinced it was haunted. We kept hearing noises, and in such a big house, its hard not to get scared.  We were about half an hour from the beach, and we were all ready to go swimming, but it was too cold and jellyfish-filled to enjoy, so we ventured off to five more beaches that Mom had researched. One was filled with huge rocks that were super fun to climb on, and one had sea urchins in it, so we couldn’t swim, but we could enjoy the beautiful tide pools. There was also a winery near by, so we stopped to have a look around.

Frolicking in the Mediterranean in the Costa BravaIn front of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

All in all, this first month has been great! I can’t wait for our next adventure to begin!

If you are looking for the best hotels in Algarve, you should check out the link to the left. They are making it possible for us to keep the lights on and keep the blog posts coming.


RTW Week 1 – Is 5 countries in 6 days a bad idea?

RTW Week 1 – Is 5 countries in 6 days a bad idea?

I’ll answer that one. Yes. Yes, it’s a terrible idea. Especially if you’re traveling without a spouse and with two tween girls, one of which has a cold.

It started well enough. We succeeded, after much deliberation, in packing everything we thought we might need for a year into one small suitcase and one backpack each. Let me remind you that three of us are female, and like to wear cute clothes and shoes. This was not easy. But we did it. Here’s the proof:

Packed for our family round-the-world trip - one small suitcase and one</a srcset=

You might notice that two of the three suitcases are already extended to their maximum girth. This does not bode well.

My mom drove us to the airport (thanks, Mom!) and after a few tears at the drop-off, everything was better with one last trip to Five Guys and some free wi-fi (both of which helped to make Dulles our favorite airport of the trip so far). A few hours later, we bid farewell to country #1.

We arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland at the crack of dawn, and found the bus to our hostel waiting for us. Iceland really is the most tourist-friendly place I’ve ever seen. And friendliest, period. We went to our hostel, but weren’t able to check in until 2 pm. They were nice enough to let us wait in the lobby, which was furnished with comfy and stylish vintage furniture, had free wifi, and felt much more like the Ace Hotel in New York than any hostel I’ve ever stayed in.  Then again, it cost as much as the Ace Hotel, but that’s the price of being in Iceland. It’s expensive!

Sleepy girl at Kex Hostel, Reykjavik, Iceland

The girls were exhausted, and Magnolia seemed to be coming down with a cold, so they quickly fell asleep in the comfy chairs. I felt a little guilty for not going out to see the sights, since we only had a day and a half to spend in Iceland, but we needed to rest for our afternoon tour. We had booked a tour through Viator for the Golden Circle Tour, where we’d see Þingvellir, a huge rift in the earth where the North American and Eurasian plates meet, Gullfoss, an immense double waterfall, and Geysir, the eponymous waterspout. The tour was fantastic, our tour guide an encyclopedia of knowledge, but the weather was awful. Cold, grey, rainy, miserable. They may look happy here, but that is only because we had just had a hot bowl of lamb stew at the cafeteria next to the Gullfoss stop.

Freezing cold at Gulfoss

The next day was our reward for the hours of being cold and wet on an unheated bus: the Blue Lagoon Spa, where we could be warm and wet and covered with silica mud to make our skin glow with youthful joy. I had made arrangements with Visit Iceland to write about the spa, so they picked up the tab for our transportation from the hostel to the Spa, the admission fee, and the bus to the airport from there. Nice! See how happy Magno is?

Happy girl at Blue Lagoon Spa, Iceland

We had so much fun, we missed our bus! And though it seemed like we would have plenty of time to make our flight if we took the next one, everyone we talked to seemed to think that we’d better take a cab. Instead of the free bus? Yes, they assured us. You must take a cab now. So we did. And 15 minutes and 60 euros later, we were there. 3 hours early for our flight. No one in line for security. The passport control for our flight didn’t even open until an hour before our flight. So for the entire flight to London I was kicking myself for busting our budget on our second day. At least the cab driver was lovely. When I asked him why things were so expensive in Iceland, he pointed to the hood ornament on his car and replied, “Like the cabs? So that we can drive Range Rovers!”

So on to country #3, briefly. We flew to London (Heathrow), arrived on time, retrieved our bags, hopped on a bus, and arrived at our Holiday Inn Express Stansted at 11:30, so we could get up at 6 to get a shuttle to the airport for our 9 am flight to Portugal (country #4). Done.

In Porto, I was attending the Travel Bloggers Unite conference for the weekend, so we stayed in the conference hotel: the Sheraton Porto (five stars). I assured the girls that this would probably be the nicest hotel we stay in for the entire trip. The girls enjoyed the tv, the wifi, and the enormous bathroom. From the tub, you could open the bathroom blinds to watch tv, and adjust the volume on the bathroom speaker to your liking. They did not seem to mind hanging out there while I went to the conference.

On Saturday night we did a bit of walking around, and took a ride on the teleferico – an air gondola ride up one of the many hills in Porto. Seriously, this city rivals San Francisco in its steep streets. And in its lingering sunsets.

Teleferico in Porto


I tried the truly awful local favorite sandwich, the francesinha, pictured below. It’s made with steak and several kinds of sausage, covered with melted cheese, and served with a tomato and beer sauce, and always served with fries. The three of us could not finish it.

Francesinha in Porto

We walked across this bridge, on the top level, mind you.

Luis I Bridge, Porto

Here, I’ll prove it.

Walking across the Luis I Bridge in Porto

OK, that doesn’t really capture the height of this bridge or the extent of the vertigo we experienced, but it was seriously scary. Especially when the tram went by.

The next day, after the conference, we met up with a CouchSurfer who had offered to show us around a bit. She and her daughter walked with us to the Casa da Musica, designed by Rem Koolhaas, to watch the skateboarders on the inclines, and around the monument celebrating the Portuguese victory over Napoleon.

Couchsurfing friends

We enjoyed seeing the surfers on the metro, but we never managed to get to the seaside of Porto.

Surfers in Porto


Not at all satisfied that we had seen all there was to see in Porto, we nonetheless had to get up at 5 the next morning to get our 6:30 am Ryanair flight to Madrid. This one was totally my fault. I had meant to book the late morning flight, but the website timed out while I was reserving it and when I went to buy it, it automatically booked me on the earliest one. Which I didn’t notice until after I had already checked in for the flight, which meant it was too late to change it. Nice work, mom. Here no one told us to get there early. They assured us that if we left by 5:15 we’d be there in plenty of time. And yet… the airport was packed with people trying to get the earliest flights out. The security line took forever. Hundreds of people in line. And who had not had her coffee? Yep. Cranky old mom.

We made it to country #5 early enough that caffeine withdrawal had not kicked in by the time we sat for a cup of coffee in the airport. We took a cab to the home of our Couchsurf hosts, which was quite a bit longer and more expensive than we expected, but we arrived to find our very cheerful and chatty hostess, Carmen, and a few hours later, her three adorable kids home from their first day of school. Carmen does not speak much English, and I do not speak much Spanish, but we managed to get through the day until her husband Antonio came home and could be our translator. In the meantime, she taught me how to make a Spanish tortilla!

When Antonio came home, we went to the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of Cervantes and home to a lovely old university (and an ice cream shop, conveniently enough! – note the chocolate on little Andres’ shirt).

More Couchsurfing friends in Alcalá de Henares

Had our first taste of tapas and began to understand the Spanish schedule. Lunch is normally at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and is the largest meal of the day. Siesta is a serious thing, especially in the hotter parts of Spain, and many shops close from 2 til 4:30 or 5. From 5 to 8, people walk around, meet their friends, maybe have a drink and a snack, and then head home and start making dinner, which happens around 10 or 11. All but the smallest kids are up until 11 or 12, and up for school at 9. Unless your names are Calla and Magnolia, in which case you sleep until 11.

So why do I say that 5 countries in 6 days is too much? We did have fun, and we saw and did a lot, but do you know what happened on Tuesday? Magnolia could not get out of bed. We had run her ragged, and her cold had become a hacking cough. So on day 7 of our trip we decided to just take the day off and make the whole day a siesta.


Iceland with Kids: around the blogs

Iceland with Kids: around the blogs

The very first stop on our round-the-world family adventure will be Iceland.  Land of ice. And steam. And volcanoes. And Björk.

I’ve been doing a bit of research online to get ready, and found some great information from around the blogs. The 2 Travelaholics give a great overview of the country. The folks at the Family Adventure Project have posted some articles about the quirky and optimistic nature of the Icelandic people. And Travel Savvy Mom goes even deeper into the quirky (a penis museum? and unicorns?) aspects of visiting Iceland with kids. Vagabond3 spent some time in Iceland looking for tacos, and taking the world’s coldest boat ride, while our DC neighbor Matt Long from Landlopers harassed some whales. And speaking of whales… Nicole is the New Black ordered a whale burger, but it didn’t go as planned.

It would be hard to write about Iceland without mentioning the Blue Lagoon Spa, a thermal (if not-so-natural) wonder not far from Keflavik airport. Vagabond 3 tell about slathering on silica mud there, while The World is a Book gets into the nitty-gritty detail about visiting the Blue Lagoon Spa with kids. According to everyone, the thermal waters are not so nice for the hair, so go prepared!

An Icelandic native shows us around in the I Heart Reykjavik blog, where I learned about an exhibit at Power Plant Earth that will fit quite nicely into our 7th grade earth science curriculum.

Iceland with Kids

Venture outside of Reykjavik for some stunning natural wonders. The Golden Circle tour takes you by stunning geysers and waterfalls. Lee Abbamonte lists his 5 Best Things to do on a Road Trip in Iceland, and says to be sure to hit the Iceland Travel Market in Reykjavik to book tours on arrival.

guide to iceland

Be sure to check back here in a few months when I’ll have posts from our family’s trip to Iceland.