Discover the country of Iceland rich in adventure and natural beauty
Iceland, also known as “The Land of Fire and Ice”, has dramatic terrain such as volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields that pepper the Nordic island nation. Both Vatnajokull and Snaefellsjokull are national parks that protect some of the largest glaciers in Europe. Iceland also contains some of the most active volcanoes in the world. The capital, Reykjavik, runs on geothermal power and has a rich history to explore. Iceland’s Viking history can be found in the National and Saga museums located in the capital city.
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This is East Coast Portland not West Coast Portland
Let’s Start With How You Will Get There
Fly into Boston first because it’s only 2 ½ hours to Portland
You can fly into the Portland International Jetport but it has its limitations. It finally got over 2 million passengers in 2019 so that should give you an idea of its traffic size. There is only 1 international flight. Your best bet is to fly into Boston Logan International in Massachusetts as there are numerous flights to choose (allowing you to search for the best fare for your dates) as well as giving you a quick side-trip to Boston for fun. That’s what I did recently on a trip to the WITS conference being held in Portland, Maine.
1. See Boston. Visit the Tea Party Museum. Eat at a Bakery.
I had 36 hours in Boston. What to do? Why not take an Old Town Trolley tour first! Helps to get a feel for the layout of downtown Boston and takes 2 hours if you don’t get off at any stop. And it covers all the stops you need to see for a first-time visit or even if returning. That’s what I did even though the weather wasn’t so great being overcast, cold, and drizzly. But I did make it a point to do the Boston Tea Party tour which was fun. Even got to participate in a re-creation of the town meeting harking back to the 1700’s. In the short amount of time I had in Boston I managed to also squeeze in a visit to a local bakery to get a box of goodies including the famed Cannelloni. Much better than a Dunkin’ Donut. Our tour guide made a joke about how Bostonians give directions; “Its 3 dunks straight and 2 to the right” in reference to how many Dunkin’ Donut shops are located in Boston. I used Yelp to find a bakery instead near my hotel which was the newly renovated Courtyard Marriott by the TD Garden Arena. I chose that Hotel because it is literally across from the North Train Station which offers the Downeaster Amtrak train service directly to Portland. The other stations do not. There were also several nice restaurants & pubs within 10 minutes or less walking distance. I even had a drink at the oldest pub in America which is located right by the Holocaust Memorial.
2. Travel by train on the Downeaster service via Amtrak. See the coast.
The Amtrak service was pleasant. It was early in the morning when I boarded so I planned on sleeping but instead ventured over to the Café Car for Coffee and an English-Muffin breakfast sandwich. I had a window seat to watch the countryside and coast as we smoothly sailed along. In no time at all we were at the Portland Train Station where it was easy to get an Uber/Lyft ride to our Hotel.
3. Stay Centrally Located By The Bay
Downtown Portland is easy to navigate and was only 10 minutes to the center to the Holiday Inn By-the-Bay where the conference was being held. The hotel itself is a bit on the 1980’s but it was adequate and actually large enough to hold 500 WITS attendees. Plus it has a restaurant and full-service bar with friendly staff. Registration staff were friendly and helpful too plus there is a free shuttle to take you around town. My room was on the 8th floor facing the huge Casco Bay so on the days the sun came out there was a pretty view.
4. Stay at the swank Portland Harbor Hotel
If you want to stay somewhere more upscale with a lot more amenities, try the Portland Harbor Hotel. A group of us WITS attendees in the 55+ range were given a private tour and presentation by the very friendly and accommodating staff. Sipping our Prosecco’s we were given a short presentation on a new property they are building called The Inn at Diamond Cove. It’s very luxe. We also were shown a standard room at the hotel.
5. Eat a Holy Donut not blessed by the Pope
Notwithstanding the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts, we were advised by locals to try the Holy Donut. It’s a “must-try” I have to pass along to you, dear reader, as it was delicious! I had one of their popular donuts, Dark Chocolate with Sea-Salt Caramel and their signature coffee, a Cocoa Coconut flavor. On a mildly-cool weather day it was a good pick-me-up as I walked around downtown to explore the sights.
6. Walk everywhere because it’s easy to do
I started on Commercial Street and headed towards the Eastern Promenade passing historical Fort Allen Park to the East End Beach where several dogs were playing and having a good time. A few weddings seemed to be taking place in the park so I sat down on a bench to rest at Munjoy Hill and gaze at the beautiful expansive view of the harbor. This green park on a hill connects to Congress Street which has a lot of great little eateries as well as the famed Portland Observatory.
7. Eat Lotsa Lobsta
After all that walking in the brisk air, stop for a lobster meal somewhere. I ended up at the Portland Lobster Company which is rated tops in Yelp. You really can’t go wrong with a Lobster Roll either. Eat to your hearts content. They never run out of Lobster in New England.
The WITS opening night party was held at The Grace, an 1859 church that was renovated and turned into a Restaurant/Wedding Venue. We heard some good music and mingled under the purple lights. See images below.
"The Portland City Clerk's office has 536 registered food service establishments with food preparation, according to Alexandra Murphy, assistant city clerk. Assuming a Portland population of 63,000, we come up with one restaurant for every 118 people. Pretty good!"
8. Drink Liquor by way of a Maine Brew Bus tour
Now you don’t drink while someone is driving. They drive you to distilleries to sample the alcohol. Seriously, this is a fantastic way to tour Portland, Maine and meet a lot of nice people while learning about the local beer breweries, honey mead winery, and gin distillery. All in a bright green bus with a knowledgeable guide (ours was named Don) and just a whole lot of fun! Check out the schedules of the Maine Brew Bus here
9. Visit an old Historical Lighthouse via a Trolley Bus tour
An easy way to get around Portland besides walking, is by taking a Trolley Bus tour which will get outside the city limits a bit to see The Port Headland Lighthouse at Cape Elizabeth. We walked 5 minutes from our hotel to the Old Port Harbor area to get on the 90 minute trolley tour. Along the way you will get familiarized with areas in the city such as the Victoria district of Greater Portland where some of these preserved Mansions offers interior glimpses. We also were told of modern celebrities born in Portland like Judd Nelson, Anna Kendrick, Liv Tyler as well as Novelist Stephen King. Then there are important historical poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
10. Take a ferry boat ride to one of the Calendar Islands
Casco Bay in Portland, Maine has over 300 small islands called the Calendar Islands. I had a daytrip via ferry out to Cow Island (which is part of Long Island) with several other WITS attendee’s courtesy of Rippleffectmaine.org. Rippleffect is an organization that creates outdoor youth activity camps & getaways for public schools in the Maine area. Cow Island has a zipline and rock climbing wall as well as numerous other activities designed for bonding experiences. It’s quiet and isolated. I saw 2 Peregrine falcons flying overhead as the only other life that was inhabiting this quaint nature island. The other islands offer many hike & bike opportunities as well as places to stay & eat.
11. Car ride to Freeport visit the 24-hour LLBean store
One of the attendees I met at WITS is a travel advisor like myself, named Nancy Dorrans who runs Adventure Marketplace. As a local, she welcomed the WITS attendees and soon was making friends with many of us by taking us around to show us the sites, all impromptu and in her car. We had a fun time going up Interstate 95 in about 20 minutes to Freeport where L.L.Bean’s Flagship 24-hour store is located. Instead of shopping, however, we dropped one of our group members off at the beautiful Kendall Tavern Inn Bed and Breakfast where we were given an impromptu tour of a very nice place to stay if you’re ever in the area. Afterwards we had dinner at the historic Jameson Tavern (built in 1779) for more Lobster and drinks.
Something for Everyone No Matter How Short of a Stay
There are many more things to see and do in Portland, Maine. I’ve only listed the things I personally did on a weekend in May 2019.
If you are really short on time maybe only have a day to do something check out what you can do in under three hours.
In any case, and for any length of time, you can always find something great to do, somewhere nice to stay, and something delicious to eat, in Portland, Maine!
Travel to Chennai in Southern India
Discover What You Didn't Expect
It was my first time in Chennai, India. I had some minor expectations but they were drastically altered upon arriving at the Chennai Airport.
Surprise! It’s not for the claustrophic nor the newbie traveler who has never been anywhere.
Let me start by saying Chennai or even India was not on my travel bucket list. I went there because I was invited to a wedding. And if it wasn’t for that wedding I’m not sure if I would had ever gone as I still have so many other places in the world on my travel bucket list to see. Yet, this wedding made all the difference to experience something beautiful that I never expected to find.
So before you write me off as a “Western Woman of White Privilege” or some such nonsense, read the rest of my post. Understand I’m a world traveler, open to new experiences. I love meeting people from different cultures, that’s a big part of why I’m in the Travel Industry. I’m just relating my trip as I experienced it.
Customs Clearance in Chennai, India
But getting back to my arrival at the Chennai Airport…its airport code being MAA for the former name of Madras, India that was changed back in 1996. There is a new terminal at the Chennai airport, it’s terminal 4 for international departures. However, I came in from Paris on Jet Airways arriving at terminal 3 known as the “Anna” terminal. Who is Anna you might wonder? Anna is the word for someone who is like an elder brother. So you see this word from time to time in and around Chennai. It also happens to be the name of my Mother (RIP) so maybe it was also a little sign that she was watching over, who knows?
I assumed like all busy international terminals there might be a wait going through customs but not a 3 going on 4 hours wait! We got in at 1am local time but at the same time a huge flight from China came in minutes before us. That meant hundreds of passengers in line with only about 3 windows open. Plus, several of the tourists from China had the wrong paperwork and so the clerk would physically escort the passenger somewhere else rather than sending them to another place. This was tedious to have to wait but there was nothing to make it go faster.
India Tourist Visa
Fortunately I got an eVisa online for India which was simple enough and took 2 days to get and cost $100USD. I presented a printout of the eVisa as required. No showing of a downloaded document on your phone is allowed. You have to give a paper printout of your eVisa. Once stamped, I went through a strange security process where everyone was throwing their stuff on a dilapidated conveyor belt to go through a scanner. There wasn’t a formal process really, just dig out your bag, purse, backpack, jacket, whatever from the pile before it toppled to the floor on the other side.
Beware the Air Quality or Lack thereof
I had arranged a driver from the ITC Grand Chola Hotel where I was to be staying to pick us up. He had patiently waited for us the several hours (I had called letting them know of the delay) so that was a big plus especially upon arriving in Chennai. Otherwise, I was in for a big shock as we walked outside so early in the morning, still dark outside but immensely smoky! All this “smoke” was really smog that never really goes away in the city of Chennai. I could live through a delayed customs process but the thickness of the smog was shocking not to mention hard on my sensitive lungs. Our driver was friendly, helpful and managed to squeeze in the luggage into an old SUV while honking as he pushed his way through the throngs of vehicles and people. And throngs there were! Everywhere.
Congestion & Crowds: How Do You Get Around Chennai?
I immediately felt relief once at the hotel. The ITC Grand Chola is considered a 5-star luxury resort. It leaves you feeling immersed in an oasis in an otherwise concrete jungle of congestion and noise. The big plus was hiring a driver through the concierge to get around the city. I found walking or using public transportation was not ideal as it just wasn’t practical. Chennai is a huge city covering approximately 164 square miles! With a population of over 7 million. This is not the kind of city you say to yourself, I’ll just take a quick walk to the seaside. No, too far away.
Hiring a Driver or Use Uber
A driver costs about 2500 Indian Rupee for 6 hours. That converted to about $35 and turned out to be much more reliable than an Uber. And even though road signs are in English and Tamilese (a form of Hindi) driving is opposite of the USA. Plus there was a lot of “anything goes” especially in intersections. The honking though, is something you have to get used to. The dangerous chances drivers take while driving on the road is just how it works in Chennai. I had to get used to it. I even tried Uber a couple of times which were not up to the standard I’m accustomed to when using Uber say, in Europe. Would not really recommend using it in Chennai.
The ITC Grand Chola Hotel
Note: Click on images to expand. Follow @ITCHotels www.instagram.com/itchotels/
I can only rave about this resort! Service par excellent! Style, class, design, history, unbelievable amount of outstanding food restaurants, a swimming pool up top like a private oasis while the hubbub goes on below. Take my word for it this is a must-stay especially if you are a first-timer like I was to Chennai. Oh, and they have rooms for solo female travelers. That’s a plus!
The Spa Experience!
The Hotel has a fabulous spa, The Kaya Kelp. Smooth beige marble adorns the walls and floors making for a feeling of a temple or quiet, elegant space. It’s large, it’s serene, and you get waited on hand and foot literally. I splurged on an Ayurvedic treatment as well as a foot massage. I was referred to talk with a Doctor on staff about my medical conditions to make sure that the Ayurvedic Hot Oil treatment wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it was described as being good for people with Arthritis so I gave it a shot for that reason. For an hour I was given the Royal Treatment by a young female masseuse. It was super relaxing. Afterwards I stepped into the Steam Room, then the Jacuzzi, then showered (all the toiletries and amenities are available right there) then went to the relaxation room for a cup of tea. Ahhh, bliss achieved.
The Rooftop Pool at the ITC Grand Chola
For a refreshing, relaxing time, head to the rooftop pool area that has 3 main pools plus an outdoor Jacuzzi. This is a getaway oasis in the bustling, noisy city of Chennai. The pool area is lush with greenery, clean, and you will be waited on to get food and drinks. It's also ideally situated just outside the gyms on either side where you can continue your workout after a swim. Me, I just lounged after a swim.
Exploring the Many Temples of the Tamil Nadu Region
The City of Chennai is in the Tamil Nadu State that boasts itself as the Land of Temples as there are over 33,000 ancient temples some as old as 5,000 years. You can find them everywhere in varying sizes. The hotel concierge recommended starting with the Kapaleeshwarar Temple which is dedicated to the Lord Shiva/Siva. It is the Mylapore area of Chennai which was severely hit by the Tsunami in 2004. It took about 20 minutes to get there from the hotel and I was disappointed to discover it was closed. I later learned that a lot of temples in Chennai don’t open until the afternoon. I took what photos I could of the outside including an ancient huge wooden statue on wheels that is brought out for special celebrations. Otherwise it sits in the open under a cloth with an intimidating face peering out. The cows in the street, however, don’t seem to mind it.
Expansive Marina Beach on the Bay of Bengal Oceanside
About 10 minutes away from this temple, and still in the Mylapore district, is the famous Marina Beach. It is the longest and largest. We drove along the frontage road where there are dozens of food stands. I was advised not to eat from any of them. I was able to see the Bay of Bengal but it seemed calm, a darkish blue-gray. The open expanse of sand was not filled with people just some here and there. Sometimes kids playing soccer. Further on up the road I drove through the slum area that got hit hard by the Tsunami. Local fisherman/women abound with their catches of the day.
Fort George British Museum
I was also advised to take a visit to the famous Ft. George Museum which is another tourist hot spot. Again, getting there at 4 pm and being told it was closed. Yet the sign said it closes at 5pm. I wanted to see the history pertaining to the British landing here in 1644 and establishing their stronghold. But will have to see it another time.
In the center of Chennai is a Government Museum with history relating to how people first arrived in this part of the Indian Continent thousands of years ago. This complex of museum buildings includes a children’s museum, an art museum and shady tree-lined grounds like a park to walk around and enjoy the scenery. Beware and look up when walking in the back area of this complex as there are tons of hanging bats in the trees. They blend in at first (see photo below). These are not tiny bats but when I saw them fly they seemed as large as a cat. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and moved inside. Ha-ha. But seriously, the bats don’t go swooping around your head. They keep to the trees at least when I was there.
Authentic India Shopping vs. Modern Mall Shopping
I needed to get a Saree (that’s usually how I saw it spelled with 2 ee’s at the end) for the wedding. My husband needed something appropriate to wear as well so we were advised to go to the T. Nagar shopping street. The T stands for Theagaraya which tourists usually can’t pronounce so it’s commonly referred to as T. Nagar street. The driver skillfully found an open parking spot under the highway overpass amidst thousands of other vehicles and pedestrians. My husband and I made a mad dash to cross the street to start shopping for Indian clothing for a wedding. The first store we tried was a chain store with 5 levels. We figured we might luck out and get all what we needed there…but no such luck. The young girls who waited on us looked to be about 13 years old and couldn’t stop giggling at us as we tried to explain what we needed. They didn’t speak a lot of English so they referred us to a gentleman who then said we should go to the 3rd floor. They escorted us to the elevator (insisting we use it). On the 3rd floor we didn’t have any better luck so we decided to take a chance and start store hopping. Luckily next door was a shoe store so we walked in and were greeted by about 3 people eager to serve us. My husband is a big guy so finding shoes and clothing for him was going to be problematic we thought. But at this shoe store we found a comfortable pair of dress shoes for him, a pair of sandals for me, and a clutch. Off we went, hand-in-hand to cross the street to get to a better Saree store. I couldn’t help but drop a few expletives as we were narrowly missed several times by drivers speeding and honking to get out of the way. (There is no pedestrian walk you just have to cross wherever) Our driver saw the struggle so he bravely and boldly made it a point to hold up traffic for us with his hands and made sure we weren’t hit by the cars.
The Pachaiyappas Silks Store
At the Saree store we were stared at again, not surprisingly. It didn’t bother me because we were the only white western people shopping there. It was a busy store with lots of women picking out fabric from a spectacular display of colors. As samples were offered to me, I decided I wanted something with metallic-silver in it to match my shiny sandals so they said go up to the 5th floor. Each floor of the store is based on Saree cost. The first floor is the lowest, and so on. When they said a Saree with silver in it might cost 12,000 rupee and I said fine, is when they ushered me upstairs. (12,000 rupee is about $170USD. I wasn’t thinking and didn’t convert it just went ahead with the flow of things)
The end result of Saree shopping you can see below. The Saree material is actually several yards. It is not cut to fit. It's just one very long piece of rectangular fabric. I had to hire a young woman at the hotel to help "wrap" me which took about 25 minutes. That's because there's a lot of pinning of the folds and pleats to try and hold them in place. I found it not easy to walk in or get in and out of a car without messing up the arrangement a little bit.
Santa Claus in India
The salesman who ended up helping us brought out a nice variety of fabric that he would lay on the table for viewing. Each time I shook my head No, he brought out more. I couldn’t find one that had the Silver in it but settled for one with Gold instead. Since I didn’t know how to wrap it, they called for an old Grandmotherly-type woman to come over and wrap me. She did exquisitely and I liked the appeal of what I saw. The salesman then brought in a young woman to escort me to the dressing room to try on the blouse that is worn underneath. He gave me a blouse that fit exactly by judging my bosom I guess. At least I didn’t have to try on several things. The last thing I needed for the Saree outfit was what they called a dress skirt to go underneath. They didn’t sell those but said they could be found at a lot of places. While we waited for the Saree outfit to be packaged up, we were offered Indian Chai tea in little paper cups. We started to talk with a very friendly Indian salesman who asked where we were from. When he learned we were from Dallas, Texas, USA he smiled big and said his daughter lives in Philadelphia. From there the conversation went on to other topics. I forgot how we got to the point of mentioning that my husband has played Santa Claus for Charity for 10 years but the man was happy to hear it.
My husband then whipped out his Santa Claus ID that he carries around for fun and the man went silent and solemn. We looked at each other wondering if we offended him…he then came over to stand in front of my husband and ask for his blessing. My husband is the friendly-sort and went along with it. My husband then voiced his customary “HO HO HO!” in a deep-chested throttle and at the end folded his hands together in a prayerful way and said “Namaste”. The man nodded downward and seemed very pleased. Then 2 young women walked over and asked for blessings. Then a family with a small child. And more store salespeople. My husband was having a great time with “Ho!Ho!Ho! Namaste!” My mind was blown. I was so taken from what transpired that I didn’t even think to capture it on my iPhone video! Bummer. It was a memorable experience and made my husband’s day!
Modern Shopping Mall