Monday, 26 January 2015


Goa - India
Fishermen on Palolem Beach

Typical Beach Cafe in Palolem

A few years back I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in Goa, on the west coast of India. Unlike most tourists and travellers I arrived there by bicycle having cycled there with my teenage son all the way from the West of Ireland, on our way to Japan. I have discovered that arriving in a place by some unusual means (on foot, on two wheels or by boat, for example) gives you a totally different perspective on a place – usually a more positive one, so please bear this in mind if I sound somewhat over-enthusiastic at times. This account covers several key locations of interest in Goa. It includes the state capital Panji (Panjim), the southern resorts of Palolem, Patnem and Agonda, along with the northern resorts of Anjuna and Arambol. The perspective is largely from an overland / backpacking point of view but will also be of interest to those on shorter 'package' holidays who are looking to experience more than that which can be found on organised tours in the more well known tourist spots. Sam and I had the luxury (a matter of opinion, I realise) of travelling around Goa on bicycles for a month. It meant we got to see things other visitors couldn't, but most of the places we visited are accessible cheaply by means of local busses or taxi

Palolem is still a relatively small beach resort in the very south of Goa at the edge of the Western Ghats. It amounts to a single street about 1km long, leading down to a lovely sweep of white sandy beach (in a bay about 2km long). The beach ends in Green Island Point to the north and Neptune Point to the south and is backed the entire length by dense palm trees, within which are sited numerous collections of what are generally called 'coco-huts'. 

These huts came about in the sixties when hippy backpackers would get locals to build them somewhere to hang out and smoke weed for a few month before they moved on and continued their hallucinatory roaming about the Indian Sub-continent. Gradually since then these places have come to catered for more 'respectable' backpackers and gap-year travellers. There are an increasing amount of more mature travellers, many of whom are revisiting memories of their youth. Many others are simply seeking the dream they have read about in books about that flower-power era of peace and love. I will not disclose into which category I fit.  

San Pedru Coco-huts on Palolem Beach (Moksha cafe to the left)

Cuba Bar - Palolem

Most of the bamboo and thatch coco-huts have no planning permission. In the past these were bulldozed every year by government order if they were not dismantled first. The huts and bar / cafes returned each new season since they are a vital source of revenue for the locals. This system has become a more formal one now and bulldozers are less often required. This means it is difficult for anyone to give fixed recommendations on which huts are the best since things vary from year to year. Suffice to say that they always vary in quality and facilities, with prices tending to match the specification list more than the location. 

Most of the coco-hut accommodation consists of a single room with a double bed and partitioned shower-room with running luke warm water. Most have a ceiling fan and a few have perspex windows. They are basic but comfortable in a kind of Robinson Crusoe way. We stayed in San Pedru Huts around the middle of the beach, which was bottom end budget (In 2008 400 Rupees per night, but I know by 2013 it was already double that). I would also recommend San Francisco Coco Huts nearby, Brendan's Huts and at the southern end Papillon, run by an English lady and her Indian husband and priced at the upper end of the middle band. Further to the south-east one can now find more luxurious and trendy huts in what is worryingly termed an eco-village. These are at least twice the price of the more basic huts, but for short-term holidaymakers are still perceived as fairly cheap.

The beach at Palolem is fairly clean given its popularity but varies as the season progresses. The local dog population has become a somewhat unpleasant hazard. The sea is clean enough, but not what you could call crystal clear. 
Along the beach there are numerous beach restaurants and bars, mostly associated with groups of coco-huts behind. These also change in popularity, atmosphere and ownership from season to season but a few are regular features and worth recommending: 

Moksha is a well run restaurant and bar with consistently good food at reasonable prices. It caters for those wanting Indian food and tourists missing home who want burgers or full-english breakfast etc. The burgers are pretty damned good actually. We were always told that the beef was actually water-buffalo due to Hindu rules. The same family also run Cool Breeze on the main street. The menu is the same here but the chef at that time was one of the owner/brothers so the food was slightly superior. 

Cuba Beachbar was the current favourite when we were there. There was a second on the main street. 

Cieran's Camp used to be the most upmarket when we were there last. The menu is pretty much the same everywhere but here you could get proper napkins and more attentive service at a premium price. 

Banyan Tree Beach Restaurant had a wholefood orientation and served superb spinach and mushroom burgers etc. 

Chaudi is the nearest main town to Palolem and is just beyond the railway station. Cancona railway station is about 3km away from Palolem and Chaudi another 2km further. It is a bustling small town with a fruit and veg market and a couple of good, cheap restaurants. Udipi Hotel (Veg Thali very cheap) is excellent but grubby as you would expect, since it does not cater for tourists. Their onion ravi masala (pancake) is superb and used to cost 20R. All the long-termers can be found here at lunch. Their fresh sweet lime soda may be the best in Goa. Udipi Krishna is a smaller and cheaper alternative nearby (Veg Thali there used to be 25R!) Sam had a birthday haircut in Chaudi. He was less than impressed.

Patnem is the next village on the coast, 2km down from Palolem. It was quieter but I understand has become more developed. Many of the long-termers rent houses here. It has become a bit dirty and for some lacks the atmosphere of Palolem itself. If you were going to Goa and you wanted it quieter with less short-term tourists then this may be for you. Bahti Katir Eco-huts were very nice huts in a self-sufficient hamlet on the edge of Patnem. The price for being ethical, however, is significant premium over other places. Nearby was a guest-house called 'Home' which is popular, as was Ocean Hotel (run by Brit's). Lonely Planet sings the praises of Seaview Restaurant. It used to be run by a Canadian couple a few years back, but apparently they were too successful so were run out of town. Bear this in mind if you have business ideas. Seaview Restaurant was run by a slovenly collection of locals when we were there, so had lost its charm somewhat. This is apparently a common scenario so do bear in mind when you read or hear reports from books or other travellers, that good places run by foreigners may suddenly take a dive in quality. 

12km to the north of Palolem is Agonda. It is smaller like Patnem and was also popular with those seeking to 'bliss-out' in peace and tranquility. There were a few beach restaurants just starting to go up so I'm guessing things will have moved on in development by now. There is a bus here from Chaudi but many people rent scooters, or the ubiquitously charming but notoriously unreliable Royal Enfield. We found Franco's Guest House or Jasmine to be the best huts at the time. 

Heading north you arrive at the historic small state capital of Panji. This was previously known as Panjim and most people still call it that. Panjim is notable for it's decaying Portuguese colonial architecture (wooden colonnaded balconies overlooking narrow atmospheric streets). Many travellers pass through it on their way to the beaches but it is worthy of a longer stay. It has a pleasant municipal market, some decent shops and restaurants and a safe, calm atmosphere. It is located along a wide estuary which opens onto the Arabian Sea, so it has large ships passing close to the promenade. The old colonial government buildings really add a delightful air of history. 

 Panjim has a a bit of a traffic problem

Colonaded buildings in Panjim echo a Portuguese past

Food lovers will love Panjim and should head, without delay to a restaurant named 'Viva Panjim'. This is a small family restaurant, run by a charming lady named Linda de Sousa, is an absolute delight. She earned a lifetime achievement award (2007) from the Goan International Cuisine Festival and in our experience it was well deserved. The largely regional Indian food was subtle, well cooked and very reasonably priced. The atmosphere in the small dining room or outside is quite relaxed, but with well-dressed waiters and a tempting top-quality menu. My son Sam and I came back every day for 4 days and never tired of it. You will find it just off 31st January Street. 

Sam and I stayed in the Comfort Guest House also on 31st January street. It was well priced (300R at the time for a spacious twin room with shared clean bathroom but prices will have increased since). It had a pleasant airy atmosphere along with kindly though strict staff. Checkout is at 8.30am and they expect you to stick to it. Laundry used to be 10R per item. There was TV in each room (72 channels even back then). The well known Hotel Venite is further up the street and serves good food, although prices have increased as more tourist guide-books have recommended it. Worth a look round or at least a cup of tea on one of their tiny balconies though. At the end of the street towards the post office you will find Vihar, a local Indian cafe serving vegetarian staples to a lower to middle-end Indian clientele. They have a good menu of dosas and bahjis along with a very good fresh juice bar. Prices should still be low and the pancakes are great. 

Mapusa is a busy junction town north of Panjim where many travellers change buses, go to banks etc. It may be worth delaying here to experience a bit of 'real' Indian small-town life. It has a good Friday night-market which is well known to 'Long-termers'. 

Anjuna is a well known resort on the northern end of Goa's coastline. It was once a chilled-out small seaside village but has suffered from popularity with westerner holidaymakers. Consequently it has an oversupply of beach hawkers, hustlers trying to clean your ears (and often pick your pocket at the same time) and now such pursuits as para-scending etc. 
There are some pleasant beach restaurants / bars here but it is less relaxed than either Palolem to the south or Arambol to the north. There is still an undersupply of accommodation in season despite some new modern (ugly) hotels. Sticking with traditional Indian hotels, the mid to higher end of the market is well covered by Villa Anjuna (proper stone and brick with windows). It is a good hotel on the main road into town. Rooms are comfortable and still affordable for most. 
Lower down the range but still a proper building is Mary's Holiday Home overlooking the beach from the cliffs. This is very popular so booking required. 
On the beach there are a number of Coco-hut collections. Manali guest house was also popular with backpackers at the time and was cheap.

The main attraction in Anjuna is the all too famous Friday market. It takes a whole day to see every stall, although after you have seen 20 you have basically seen everything. Only if you are bargaining hard for something do you need to see it all. However, it is a colourful and entertaining day out. 

Anjuna Friday Market

Restaurants /beach bars to recommend form a few years ago in Anjuna are Agnello's and Janet & John's (which used to do an all you can eat seafood buffet on Saturdays and Thursdays after 8pm at a budget price. Also Baba Beach Restaurant and Guest House. At that time Sea Queen Restaurant on the main road has movies every night and good food. Hopefully this information remains fairly current. 
Oasis Cafe has good German bakery. Shiva Cafe is by the bus stand and is an airy rooftop location. Nearby on the way to the beach is 'Yash' a traditional and cheap Indian cafe / restaurant serving good biryanis. 

Arambol is still a fairly chilled-out place which is preffered by long-termers. We met some really nice western semi-residents there who come each year for a 5 month season and fall into a day to day / week to week routine of breakfasting together (Akram cafe), lunching together (Ganesh) and playing guitars / singing on the beach at night. It really is the late 60's revisited. The Beatles came here during their Buddhist period. 

 Arambol Main Street in late 2008

Arambol beach comes alive at night

There are some good restaurants in Arambol that suit most tastes. A few we would recommend from that time are: 

Ganesh - on the main street. It majored on basic Indian thalis etc. It is at the bus stand end of town.

Akram - had a good menu of typical Indian fare with superb pancakes and fresh fruit salads at good prices. They also showed football and cricket matches in a low-key, local community kind of way. It was run by the Piya Guesthouse people / vice-versa. 
Rice Bowl is at the headland end of the beach and served decent, predominantly Chinese food along with a few Tibetan and Japanese dishes. Prices were mid-range, which means cheap if you are a westerner. It had snooker tables and a healthy mosquito population at times. 
Double Dutch was famous locally for excellent steaks and fitted into the upper-end of the market but was still reasonable for what you get (Arambol is still cheaper than Anjuna or even Palolem). It had a better selection of deserts than most restaurants we came across in India. Their apple pie is was our favourite. 

Accommodation in Arambol is generally well priced but often basic (which is what the typical visitor here likes it would seem). Piya Guest House (next to Akram restaurant) was very popular. It was very basic - the classic Indian Guest House of backpacking 30 years ago I'd say, but had twin rooms with basic en-suite bathrooms at very cheap prices. The management (Piya and her family) were pleasant and very relaxed. People we spoke to seemed to come back year after year. 

Residensea was a largish collection of coco-huts at the north end of the beach. No doubt it has grown since. Huts were mostly cheap, but the popularity of these huts at this end of the beach had already started to create a light sewage problem back then and contributed, no doubt, to the mosquito population in that location. Om Ganesh Huts and Sunny Guest House nearby were also popular (with travellers as well as mosquitos). 
There were various yoga / beach-paradise-oriented huts along the beach to the south which were quieter and priced similarly. 

The beach goes on from here to Mandrem to the south which also has coco-huts. These were for those wanting to be further away from the busier and more social atmosphere in Arambol. 
Arambol in those days already had plenty of internet cafes and some provisions shops (mainly fruit, vegetables and sun cream) so I can imagine it has grown significantly since then and not (in my mind) for the better. Buses back then went to the nearby towns of Mapusa and Pernem every hour. It was a paradise back then to many who yearned for the sixties of their youth (or their parents' youth) but could be irritating to some who find this commune-oriented lifestyle passé or naïve. Personally I find it reassuringly different to be in a place where everyone is trying to make good things happen for each other, but each to his own. It will no doubt have moved on and be more commercial now.

Rumours that Goa is ruined are probably premature, but I urge you not to contribute to it. If you are looking for cleanliness and home comforts it is not really the place for you. If the developers manage to persuade the local planners / government that a more local international airport is a good idea or that Panjim airport should be enlarged, then sadly things will change quickly. 

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Istanbul Experience

I'm lucky enough to have visited Istanbul a number of times in my life. It is without question one of my favourite cities. My most recent visit was a few years back with my son. On this occasion we actually arrived by bicycle, having just cycled 2,444 miles from Dingle in the west of Ireland on our way to Japan (see the "Long Road, Hard Lessons" book link, and older blog posts about that trip on the list in the right-hand margin). We stayed there for 2 weeks while we waited for our Iran visas and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Istanbul arrived 2 months into a 10,000 mile cycle trip with my 18yr old son

During that visit we stayed centrally, at Nobel Hostel in the Blue Mosque area (Mimar Mehmet Aga Street No 32 Sultanahmet to be exact). I had got to know Istanbul well when I stayed there for a while as a backpacker aged 19-20 in 1978 and I was hoping that the hostels were still mainly in that Blue Mosque area, scattered around Sultanahmet Square. Sam and I were delighted to find that they were. 

View from Nobel Hostel's Rooftop Breakfast Cafe

Having crossed the border into Turkey from Bulgaria, we found the road into Istanbul to be a very treacherous one, with heavy trucks and no real alternative smaller route, so we decided to play it safe and take a train through the last section. Exiting from the central station and seeing tram-lines everywhere, we decided to walk our bikes up to Sultanahmet square and it was there we came across Antique Hostel. This hostel had been recommended by backpackers as one of the best in Istanbul but it was fully booked when we arrived. However the helpful guy on the desk sent us to their sister hostel (Nobel Hostel) around the corner, which despite being smaller is equally friendly. If you have the chance I suggest you stay at Antique Hostel which is bigger with a beautiful lounge and superb rooftop bar etc. Nobel also has a rooftop where they serve great breakfast but it is more basic.  Both were 12 Euros (20 Turkish Lira) at that time for a Dormitory room or 40E for a double room with en-suite and air-con. Prices have risen but it is still cheap.  The staff in both hostels are helpful, friendly. There was a lovely guy we got to know at Nobel named Jimmy who was full of wicked humour. The hostels and hotels in this area mostly have roof terraces with superb views of the busy waterway where literally hundreds of large cargo ships are stacked up waiting to be allowed to load / unload onto Istanbul's many cargo docks. 

Istanbul is huge and spreads for miles, encompassing several very different areas. The official population is around 16 million but it is reputed to be nearer 20 with the tourists and travellers who are drawn to this the ancient crossroads of East and West. 

Sultanahmet is the main tourist centre on the Eminonou side and it is swamped by big tour groups in the high season (Aug - Oct). Coaches clog the roads around the square due to tourists' unwillingness to walk ten minutes to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque etc from their hotel or outer drop-off zone. They can be found smoking 'sheesha' pipes in the tourist cafes and being ripped off in the many tasteful carpet and 'antique' shops nearby. This phenomenon naturally pushes up prices in local shops and restaurants so perhaps go further afield if you are looking for a bargain. 

The old Pudding Shops (shack type street restaurants famous in the hippy era) that once lined the main street along the west side of Sultanahmet square are now proper restaurants and priced accordingly, but the food is still delicious. 

When you're ready to get away from the bustling centre, you'll find ferry boats running frequently from the waterfront, near the Galata Bridge, which is just along from the main railway station. These go to the Asian side (Uskudar) for around 1.7YTL (around a Euro) and tour boats take people on 2hr tours of the Bospherous river (probably the busiest waterway in the world - it borders on manic some days).  The Princes Islands (just 10 minutes away) have a lovely old-world charm and some good fish restaurants. The Asian side is busy but far more relaxed and decidedly cheaper. It is home to the famous Fennerbache football club. The Turks are football (soccer) crazy. Sam and I managed to see a game at a reasonable cost while we were there. 

Fennerbache Stadium

On the opposite side of the Galata bridge is Karakoy (pronounced Karakui - not to be confused with Kadakoy ferry port on the Asian side). Here there are big fish restaurants on the bridge and along the waterfront by the ferry stage. Good but a little touristy for my liking (with the many cruise line passengers who dock nearby). 

 Vintage cars and trams are common. This is in Istiklal Cadesi, Taksim.

Walk up from this side of the Galata bridge past the very noticeable Galata Tower on the steep hill. This narrow road becomes Istiklal Cadesi (Street) in the Taksim area and is one of the busiest and best shopping streets in Istanbul. You will find individual tourists wandering along this street but thankfully not tour groups. Istiklal street is wide with great bookshops, cafes, fashion shops etc. and is mostly aimed at wealthier Turks. There is a tramway up the centre (it can be dangerous) of the wide pavement with the antique trams once used throughout Istanbul. The wide shopping street begins just above the Galata tower and can be reached by a funicular railway from Karakoy (Galata Bridge). Taksim became our favourite part of Istanbul. It is quite calm, not expensive and has a huge number of cafes, bars and restaurants as well as backstreet markets and excellent music venues, bookshops etc. At the top end is where a lot of the recent political protests and blockades took place. There is a really nice hostel on this street (on the narrow steeper end of the main street to Taksim - Istiklal, near to the musical instrument shops alongside the Galata Tower). It's called World House Hostel. Dormitory beds start at only 12E including breakfast in their relaxed street level cafe. Double rooms range from 30-60 Euros. Check the prices on Personally I would prefer to stay in this part of the city away from to tour groups and gift shops. 

Fish features strongly on Istanbul restaurant menus

There are many good places to eat but I particularly recommend the following from when I was last there: 

Sultanahmet Area: 

Doy Doy. This is a traditional Turkish restaurant with a superb roof terrace overlooking the back of the Blue Mosque (best view). It is cheap for this area and the food is good. You will hear plenty of American and English accents on the terrace since it is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Main course (e.g. Kebab with salad) around 12 YTL (6E). It is near to Hotel Sarnic. 

7 Stars Hills / Restaurant
More expensive end of the market. Well known for good food and probably the highest roof terrace in the area so superb views. 30YTL average main course or basic set menu. Next to Four Seasons Hotel. 

4 Seasons Hotel 
Beautiful Hotel with rooftop bar and courtyard restaurant. Reputedly the most expensive hotel in Istanbul. It is a fairly recently converted prison with a lovely courtyard garden restaurant and is very central but in a quiet street. Very expensive. 

Taksim / Istiklal Cadesi Area: 

A friendly and quite trendy cafe / restaurant serving mainly Italian style pasta dishes with Turkish influence. Food is excellent and service good. Prices are reasonable for quality. About 20YTL (10 E) for a main dish. It is at the junction of Istiklal Cadesi and a street that leads downhill towards Tophane (modern) tram stop which you can get to direct from Sultanahmet Square very cheaply. They have lovely old B&W photos of Istanbul from the 1940's / 50s on walls and place mats which they will give you copies of if you ask. 

Beyoglu (South Taksim) just above the Galata Tower. There are numerous street cafes between buildings in the backstreets. Refil is one of most famous as a hangout of Turkish intelectuals but there are many others to check out. Main courses around 15YTL but recommend a Mezze selection of starters which can be enough with a plate of Borec cheese and meat parcels. 

Cetin Gurme 
A chain I believe and very popular with Turks. This is one of the many traditional Turkish restaurants that display a large selection of delicious dishes in their window and cook in an open kitchen. It is cheap and but be warned that it all looks so delicious that you will find it difficult not to over order and spend more than you intended. This one has a baked potato stand in front (Kunpir) with huge potatoes and a selection of fillings which are generously heaped over the potato. It is a great way for budget travellers to fill up at 8YTL including a fizzy drink. A fairly nourishing if not exactly gourmet experience. 

Istanbul is one of the world's most vibrant busy cities, where it would be difficult to get bored. People go out a lot. This can be opportune since many overland travellers get stuck here waiting for visas to places east, such as Iran. Be warned though, I have met very presentable foreign travellers here who claim to have been robbed and in need money to get home, from where they will return your money. It is a scam. Don't be put off. You will meet great people staying at the many delightful hotels and hostels. I have made many lasting friendships here and few people leave without wanting to return. Turkish people are very helpful and often quite self-deprecating. Local traders are far less pushy about encouraging you to buy than they used to be. They are clever though and in Istanbul notoriously good at making money out of tourists, but in my opinion they do it in a nice way. The Turks are quite nationalistic. Turkish flags fly everywhere, you will notice (it is such a beautiful flag) but this is usually discouraged (apparently) by the government. Especially when they are going through a period of seeing their future in the EU (although many Turks are getting tired of waiting for acceptance). Don't worry about wandering off into backstreets or poorer districts. As in all cities it is wise to walk purposefully and not to display your wealth, but it is fundamentally as safe as most European cities and a lot more exciting.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Icelandic Encounter

I had long wanted to visit Iceland. Finally it was my wife who brought it about.

Wife: "Flights to Iceland are quite cheap after Christmas and there's an inexpensive B&B here on-line... if we were to book it quickly..."

Me: "Hmm." Continues reading the day's tweets.

Wife later: "About Iceland. I could see you weren't going to make your mind up in time, so I've booked it. I'm paying. You'd better put the dates in your diary."

I was grumpy about it at the time but as the departure day approached I felt increasingly positive. I'd taken the trouble to do some research. It sounded interesting - rather unusual even.

Landing at Keflavik airport the sun seemed to be going down already at 10am. The quality of light told me it was dusk. I knew about short days in winter but wasn't expecting this. And yet it didn't get dark. For another four and a half hours it stayed like dusk and then it got dark. Very dark by around 15:30. It was not only the time / daylight thing that threw me. The landscape of the place - we seemed to be on an alien planet. No trees to speak of. Very little normal grass. Moss and slime over black rubble seemed to be the main topography from the bus window. I felt excited - a little strange but certainly a positive experience and an unusual one for a man so used to world travel off the beaten track. But there was no sign of any ice, nor any snow. I had made this observation too soon, however. The weather here changes in an instant. Within twenty minutes driving snow had covered everything in a white blanket. We slithered about as we walked to our bargain B&B in outer-central Reykjavik.

Askot B&B was a private house with a modern kitchen and bathroom. All other rooms had been converted to bedrooms. Perfectly comfortable but 12+ people queueing for the bathroom next morning was no fun.

Getting up at 9am next morning it felt like the middle of the night. Looking out into the dark I saw that more now had fallen. It was to stay like this for 3 days, followed by sudden heavy rain on day 4 which washed all the snow away. On day 5 the snow had fallen again in the night and remained until the rain on the 7th day when we left. Quite a surprise. The Icelanders say, if you don't like the weather here, just wait 5 minutes and it will change.

Our days in Iceland were spent as follows:

Day 1: Walking around Reykjavik. Booked some trips at the beautiful Harpa Building (concert and conference hall / restaurants / bars etc). Relaxed at homely 'Stofan Cafe' near the centre. New Year's Eve dinner opposite the nearby harbour at top rated restaurant Forretta Barrin (excellent & reasonably priced). Drinks in a cool but friendly basement bar (Tiu Droppar), before walking up to the cathedral to watch the incredible fireworks and midnight bells chiming, along with most of Reykjavik. Everyone was so pleasant. Heavy snow was falling as we walked home. A pretty perfect day.

The Harpa Concert Hall Building

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral gathering on New Year's Eve

Day 2: Coach tour (The Golden Circle + Geothermal energy plant visit) leaving at 08:50 (very dark) from Harpa Building. Interesting to learn about geothermal energy in Iceland. This one little (clean) plant about the size of a basketball stadium produces all the hot water and electricity for Reykjavik and more. Incredible! They have become world experts on the technology which has transformed their economy. The tourism (recent) has done the rest. Life here seems affluent in a country that was once dirt-poor. The rest of the day was mind-blowing. Various stops at stunning natural locations in the white-out of snow (they filmed Game of Thrones here), then a big waterfall that the guide called a 'small waterfall'. Then an area named Geysir, with (unsurprisingly) geysers exploding left right and centre, and then... the BIG waterfall. Gullfoss is absolutely astounding. A huge quantity of water flowing into an enormous cavern. Giant icicles. A dazzling, enormous, thundering panorama that takes your breath away (and I've seen a lot of big waterfalls). This full-on day ended with a visit at dusk to the Pingvellir National Park, where the ancient parliament (the world's first) was regularly held and where the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate of the Earth's crust meet (or rather separate), regularly spewing out magma and boiling water. They are moving apart by 2cm per year. Iceland is sinking every year yet strangely each year it grows due to the magma eruptions. I willingly take back all I've said in the past about organised coach tours. The tour was run by Sterna, whose office is in the Harpa Building next to reception. 10/10.

Gullfoss Waterfall - Gigantic, raging, unbridled and a real feast for the senses

The ridge / chasm running through the island where two continental plates meet

Day 3: My wife visited museums and galleries while I preferred to wander around the docklands and absorb the culture in traditional cafes and bars. More snow was provided.

Reykjavik Harbour is picturesque in a kind of brutalist way

The Viking Sun Sculpture on Reykjavik Waterfront

Day 4: My wife's birthday. Coach trip to the Blue Lagoon, Grindavik and the Viking Ship Museum. I was sceptical about the Blue Lagoon spa experience. It is technically man made - utilising natural rock pools in the larva-fields and excess hot water from a nearby geothermal power-plant. There is a hotel, restaurant, shop etc. The kind of thing I detest. But this was different. Subtle, sustainable, low-key, chic, tranquil and not too obviously commercial. A really relaxing experience actually, especially in the snow. But be warned - it's big, but I hear it is so packed in summer they have to let people enter in shifts. I shudder to think. Dinner at Reykjavik's renowned Grillmarka Restaurant.

The tranquility that is The Blue Lagoon (in winter anyway)

Icelandic Horses - Free of all disease therefore no import of horses is allowed

Days 5 & 6: Hanging out in some of Reykjavik's many cafes, bars and a few restaurants. Wandering around the seedy dock area - great old cafes but still expensive. Try The Coocoos Nest. The only cheap place to eat we discovered in Reykjavik was (Thai) Nudluhusid at Laugavegur 59. Almost everywhere else is an arm and a leg except hot-dog stalls and the two fish & chip cafes (Reykjavik Fish at Tryggvagata 8, is good) opposite the harbour. Good local beer (stout especially good) but no atmosphere in the well stocked Micro-Bar within the City Centre Hotel, Austurst Street. Cafes like Stofan serving alcohol, tend to have a better atmosphere and happy-hours after 5pm. Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) coach trip at night was interesting but didn't see much. Under these circumstances they give you a free repeat trip or a voucher valid for 3 years, so best to do this trip first we realised. We did see the northern lights properly for free, walking back to our B&B after the New Year's Eve celebrations but light pollution in the city meant the colours were a little pale.

The chic Smurstodin Cafe within the Harpa Building

Aurora-watching. We did catch a small tantalising flash here in centre of picture.

All in all a memorable and out of the ordinary experience, and one which I highly recommend. Summer is completely different in terms of landscape, with bright green colours. The Icelanders are most hospitable and very easy going. Two interesting cultural pointers about them:

1. Their police are never armed and they post more video on instagram (of their day to day working lives) than anyone else in Iceland by far.

2. They are not immune to the modern trend of seeking celebrity-status. In their phone book (national population is only 325,000) they are allowed to give themselves a descriptive title rather like on social media, perhaps related to their job or their interests. I am told you find things like 'fisherman', 'stamp collector', or 'cake decorator', but also titles like 'inspirational speaker', 'devoted father' and 'big lover'. Our young and rather hyperactive tour guide told us she knows a guy who's entry says 'funny man', and that he is in fact anything but funny.

Prices in shops and restaurants is the only downside, therefore I'd say it favours shorter stays. Be prepared to be offered local fauna to eat (all very sustainable). Puffin, Whale and Horse are on most traditional restaurant menus along with the more familiar European meats and fish. My favourite local culinary discovery, however, was their 'Jar Cake'.

The incredible Icelandic Jar Cake (Smurstodin Cafe - Harpa Building).
Once tried, never forgotten. The special Icelandic cream is called Skyr.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.