Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Iceland: Land of Fire, Less Ice

The following is a guest post by Brandon Vescovo

Leave your tank tops, but bring your swim-trunks & camera – escape to Iceland!

Reykjavik as seen from atop the Hallgrimskirja cathedral
After landing at Keflavik International Airport at 7am, I stepped outside to pitch darkness and a blustering, horizontal rain. As I followed a British family out into the gale, our cute rental car shuttle bus driver shouted over his shoulder, “welcome to lovely Iceland!”

Iceland may not figure into most people’s imaginations as a vacation hot-spot. This spacious but sparsely populated "Land of Fire & Ice" has always been a popular destination for adventurous nature-lovers and photographers, and regular tourist traffic has been increasing. Still, the country is often forgotten (except, of course, when its hard-to-pronounce volcanoes disrupt air traffic); even mapmakers historically neglected to include it on European maps!

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Due to Iceland’s invisibility, the question “how do you like Iceland?” has taken on inside-joke status, as natives deploy it to put foreigners on the spot. But the sentiment is sincere – fiercely proud Icelanders want you to fall in love, too. Most descend from the original Viking settlers and fewer than half a million people worldwide speak Icelandic; the national and cultural pride is tight-knit and feverish.

They also have quite the objective right to be proud. By every possible measure used to gauge the success of nations, Iceland is one of the happiest, safest, greenest, and most peaceful countries to ever exist. But what does it offer the traveler? You can do things in Iceland that cannot be done anywhere else on earth, and find the finest examples of other things which can.

In essence, Iceland offers you the ability to drive for hours, pull off the road, walk into an expansive field surrounded by mountains and/or glaciers, and wonder if you’re the first person to ever stand in that exact spot. Then, you can update your Instagram followers, who will be extremely #jealous – plus, with the amazing light & vistas here, #nofilter is required.

Want to go snorkeling between two continental plates? You can do it here.

Expect a lot of sights like this
Want to drive a modified jeep across a glacier, camp out under a crystal clear night sky and watch the aurora borealis dance, or take photographs of scenery so awe-inspiring and ancient and unspoiled that it feels downright alien? Check.

How about swim in a geothermal hot spring or heated pool under the midnight sun, or, conversely, experience a 4-hour day where the sun appears just long enough to cast the soft light of morning onto the dramatic snowcapped peaks surrounding Reykjavik, before slipping away?
You get the point – the extremes of nature are Iceland’s main selling point, and it’s impossible to overstate how naturally beautiful this place is around every corner, along every road, from the edges of Reykjavik to far-flung fjords and lava fields. Pick a direction and forge your path – it’s impossible to go wrong.
An #Instagram #Selfie at Gulfoss
The most popular time of year to visit is the summer, when the sun is up for nearly 20 hours a day and weather is slightly warmer. It’s never warm mind you, but it’s also rarely frigid – the North Atlantic current keeps the country’s temperatures relatively moderate for its latitude.
Of course, the country offers plenty of activities unique to its seasons and you shouldn't fear an off-season trip – you have no hope of seeing the northern lights when the sun is up at 11pm, for instance. Prices are also much lower in the off-season, sometimes shockingly low if you book well enough in advance. For the best compromise between daylight, weather (winter is wet), and price, you might look to late September-early November and March-April.

Even if you’re not really the outdoorsy type, you’d be wasting a trip to not spend at least one day driving the Golden Circle route (or taking a tour – but I prefer driving). This popular tourist trek takes you to three of Iceland’s most notable sights, all accessible in a day-trip from Reykjavik: Thingvellir (Þingvellir) national park, a field of geysers at Haukadalur that erupt like clockwork, and the waterfall at Gullfoss.

Thingvellir National Park
The major roads all over the country are well-maintained and easy for an attentive and cautious driver to navigate in any standard vehicle, but they are usually two lanes and rather twisty at times. Thankfully, there are many places you can pull over and safely take photos. Most roads to the deep (and uninhabited) interior of the country are closed in the off-season and require a 4-wheel drive to navigate even when they’re open, but driving the major highways around the country will be enough for most – the diversity of scenery will impress, and you won’t be outside your comfort and safety zone.

Outside of the outdoors?

There is enough to do in Reykjavik for a few days, from world-class dining, cute shopping, striking architecture, and museums that range from the historical to the…err, unique! Try the Icelandic Phallological Museum for an educational display of 200 types of mammalian penises! I bought a cute wooden penis bottle-opener from the (I assume, very lucrative) gift shop.

With quality and geographical isolation comes relatively high prices for commodities – food and drink is expensive year-round, especially alcohol, so be prepared for a little sticker shock. Even fast food tends to be as pricey as a casual sit-down chain back home. Iceland uses its own version of the krona, which is slightly weaker than the dollar. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but don’t even bother bringing your Discover or American Express. Carry some cash.

Living in a Post-Gay world

Don’t expect mega clubs or circuit parties. Being a very small, politically progressive, Nordic country, Iceland typifies the post-modern gay world. However, regardless of whether Iceland has a lot of capital-G Gay activities, there is nowhere that you need to feel unsafe. Gays have equal rights and the vast majority of Icelanders agree with this. Pink Iceland is a good resource to help direct you to establishments and activities geared toward Iceland’s LGBT community and visitors.

Kiki - the very obviously gay bar!
Pride occurs the first or second weekend of every August, and late January also brings us the Rainbow Reykjavik Festival. Kiki, the official gay bar, located off Laugavegur street in downtown Reykjavik, is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and plays a hot mix of top-40 and dance classics on the second floor, with space to chill on the third floor. I found the crowd to be very diverse, friendly, and energetic, full of tourists and Icelanders alike. There’s no standing and posing – people come here to dance! Also, there’s Dolly, which bills itself as gay-friendly with engaging (and hot!) bartenders and a gay enough crowd.

I found Grindr to be active, so don’t be afraid to use any of those “networking” apps. I met a British student out for a drink – as a foreigner in the post-gay world, sometimes apps are the easiest way to seek out new friends with public meeting spots few and far between.

One last thing – either upon your arrival or on your way to the airport, drop by and refresh yourself at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa! A perfect way to begin or end your trip! 

However you do Iceland, whenever you do Iceland, it will be a trip to document and brag about. Go once, and then come back with all your friends who called you crazy the first time!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

San Juan: Representin' the Gay Capital of the Caribbean

Colorful Streetscape of
Old San Juan
Walking through Old San Juan feels like an old town on the Spanish coast – except with even more color and heat (plus, the over-sized cars hardly fit on these cobblestone streets)! San Juan, Puerto Rico offers (even) warmer beaches and people, and a touch spicier food! This island get-away while not economically booming or particularly organized, is typical of any beach-touristy-town with some incredible historic highlights combined with a thriving local culture. For the easiest, most inexpensive beach get-away from the US anytime of year, San Juan should be your go-to gay spot!

Book your beach trip now! gAytlas tours “Alumni Spring Break” March 26-30th!

Checking Grindr at gay Atlantic Beach in Condado
Let’s start with San Juan’s most attractive resource, it’s beaches! Ripped kite-surfers fill the waves between the main gay hot-spots that attract locals and foreigners alike (though don’t look for locals when it’s cooler – like 80!). The water is the perfect bathwater-like temperature, the waves typically provide fun, but not danger (but swim with a buddy!) and the sandy beaches are well maintained. Alongside what used to be a gay-operated and frequented Atlantic Beach Hotel, which is now a mediocre and restrictive (no guest policy!) inn, the beach remains very gay daily – but best of course on weekends (or even at night!). Ocean Park beach, near Numero Uno Guesthouse also attracts the rainbow especially in high season (Dec – April).

Beach-ready boys arrive at Ocean Park
During the peak season in March, I’ve organized a gay group trip to San Juan – “Alumni Spring Break” at a gay-owned guesthouse near Ocean Park. Come stretch your legs on sandy beaches – and your dollar on the inexpensive drinks! Reviewers called the cozy Coqui Del Mar a hidden gem because it’s still close to everything, with private apartments with kitchens, jacuzzi and of course that local feel you get from staying on a real street in San Juan – not tourist-land! For less than a weekend at Fire Island, enjoy a short weekend break where the only ice is in your margarita. Of course, if you wanna spend g's and be fancy then drop some at the beautiful La Concha – the premier spot on Condado – also not far from the traditional gay Atlantic Beach.

The Gayographer at Castillo
de San Cristobal
Traversing San Juan is easy by foot or bike – it's a compact area and taking a lovely beach stroll basically gets you where you need to go. Yet, if you want to move fast – you can't rely on public transportation – unless you really want to get to know the locals (which I did) waiting for buses; better to cheaply rent a car or use taxis. Though cabs do (unsurprisingly) take advantage; it's $15 to go just about anywhere between Old San Juan and the airport. Please negotiage – though you may get a “well the standard rate...” but they will be friendly and may come down a bit. The airport is close to everything, practically on top of (beautiful, but touristy) Isla Verde beach and just a few minutes to Ocean Park – so renting a car is both cheap and practical since everything is close.

Old San Juan holds the main historical (and must-see) sites, including El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal – the largest fortress system in the Americas (which adequately protected San Juan for centuries!). Allow about 3 hours to see all of both – and enjoy a meal to stay motivated in between – bring lots of water and sunscreen (they are huge places)! Nothing could be finer than walking the old cobblestone streets inside Old San Juan with the warm tropical breeze blowing in! Swing by La Taberna Lupulo afterwards for the best fish tacos I could find in the whole city, local Puerto Rican rum and dozens of beers on tap.

View East from El Morro
Along with fabulous drinks the island comes truly unique food, a fusion of African, latin and north American cuisines. Here plantains are key; be sure to try mofongo and tostones. Mornings (for the beach-conscious) start with an Acai bowl – fruit, nuts and coconut mix – a easy breakfast or snack. Quick meals out can be spent at the local La B de Burro (2 for 1 Wednesday margaritas) Obama-visited Kasalta Bakery or try Cueva del Mar for reasonably priced seafood. Beachside Oceana provides a great meal in style; make an early reservation to catch sunset (between 5:30 and 6:30pm in high season) next to Atlantic Beach - you likely won't be able to get a later reservation anyway! In Old San Jan, Drink at the Parrot Club and try those duck nachos at Dragonfly, incredible latin-asian fusion.

Tia Maria's "Liquor Store" bar
Weekends the gay bars are semi close to the general party square called La Placita in Santruce. For a local (str8) start to the evening (late, around 10 or 11pm) with live music, dance with the locals at Taberna Los Vazquez and get yourself one of the best-made mojitos in the world! When the music ends – head over to Tia Maria's, a classic gay dive and after to Circo where all the gay boys always end up.  La Jirafa Verde (Green Giraffe) is another venue (if you like EDM) but it never seems to get too busy, despite its class and superior decor. Oasis (formerly Splash) is near the beach if you don’t want to bother traversing inland. If you make a friend a bit quicker, cut to the chase at SX bar around the corner from Circo. While outdated, this map provides a good overview and directions!

Don’t tell mom, the other alternative way to get around – no, it’s not Uber – is Grindr. Guys here are extremely friendly – and I owe them a debt of gratitude. They will often not mind giving you a lift and there need not be strings attached, though here you might want them to be! Grinder, Scruff, Adam 4 Adam or ManHunt – this is how I had a truly local experience – though I was a touch worried driving downtown as I watched my little blue dot float inland away from the beach, with someone I just met. But then he pointed out (in Spanish) the largest mall of the Caribbean – Plaza Las Americas and we got out and saw (very) local El Cojo and La Esquina de Polo, both gay bars – and even a lesbian spot here called Flavor – the local hangouts, away from tourists (but never fear, they'll buy you drinks if you make it here!).

Sunset cuddle at Atlantic Beach
And San Juan isn't the whole island! Puerto Rico has even more in-store for day trips or longer. From pristine beaches on Culebra, iconic “Gilligan’s Island”  to the only tropical rain forest within the US – El Yunque and the incredible bioluminescent Mosquito Bay in Vieques – a whole other blog’s worth of info for next time!

From the beaches, people, historical sites, food and the nightlife, San Juan comprises the best combination (at a much lower cost) for a gay get-away! No-where else can you find constantly warm temps (80s) and warm water so close to home. I look forward to seeing you in March!