Catalina Island

Where: Catalina Island
Get there: Ferry or helicopter
Destination: Avalon (coastal town)
Goal: Do everything in 12 hours

There are two tiers of tickets you can buy, and it's best to reserve online. Commodore is the "premier" tier and you get to board the boat first plus enjoy a complimentary drink. General means you board after Commodore and don't get a free drink. Also, the boat blasts air so bring a hoodie. Tickets for adults run from $36/way (general) to $51/way (commodore). Going on your birthday? Your ticket is free.

You can also opt to travel by helicopter, which is about $250/round-trip per person.

Rent your room
Think you might want to stay over (or have a home base throughout the day?) rent your room before you go; on major holidays and weekends rooms get completely booked out in advance.

Rent bikes
Most people get around Avalon by foot, bike or golf cart—and rentals run out quick. Before your trip,  go online to Brown's Bikes and reserve your ride. Bikes are $20 each for the day.

Rent your lounge chair or cabana
Descanso Beach Club is the place to be if you want to swim, drink and relax. There's public beach access for a few bucks or your can snag a lounge chair or cabana for the next level of luxury. Like hotel rooms, these go fast so book in advance of your visit.

The 12-hour Catalina Day Trip

Start: 6:00am 
Hop on the earliest ferry. It's brutal, and for the 6:00am boat ride you have to arrive at the harbor at 5:15am to check in. This means you'll get up in the 4:00 hour. Grab coffee.

Arrive/Breakfast: 7:00am
Your ferry will arrive promptly at an hour you're usually just waking up to, which is fantastic but also means you'll be able to get breakfast before anyone else. This is crucial. Go to Original Jack's Country Kitchen, a quick and cozy diner where you can get the much needed second cup of joe, eggs, waffles, breakfast burritos and more. 

Golf cart around Avalon: 8:45am
Next, you'll want to get a lay of the land and the best method is via golf cart. Avalon has some windy hilly roads, and while you think you want to bike them...don't. Rent a golf cart for an hour ($40) and follow the map they provide that will take you around, up and down all of Avalon.

Bike to Descanso Beach Club: 10:00am
After dropping off your golf cart, saunter over to pick up your reserved ride from Brown's Bikes. Head to Descanso Beach Club (opposite end of Avalon from where the ferry drops you). 

Descanso Beach Club: 10:30am
Tucked into the corner of a cove, the beach club offers public beach access, a fully stocked bar with a food menu, lounge chairs and cabanas. As noted earlier you will want to reserve chairs or a cabana before your trip, but when it comes down to it you got up before before dawn and desperately need a nap so this is your place to do it. When you're refreshed, take a dip in the ocean then grab a drink and snack.

Lunch: 2:00pm
There are tons of places in the center of Avalon for lunch, all likely busy. Opting for bar seating will expedite your wait, plus a beer at lunch is practically mandatory. Bluewater Grill sits right on the pier; get the tuna poke and chopped salad.

Jet skis: 3:15pm
If you do nothing else, rent a jet ski. Most run $130/hour for 2 people. Do it, it's the best hour I've ever had. Especially in the afternoon when the light hits the water just-so (and don't forget to check out all the boats with fantastic names as you taxi to-and-from the jet ski barge).

Return: 5:30pm
The ferry ride back will be exhausting, but since you'll be a bit more awake than your outbound trip make sure to watch as the ferry approaches the LA harbor.

By 6:30 you'll be back on the mainland, totally wiped and absolutely thrilled. Naturally, some people stay in Catalina overnight—but now you know you could totally do it in just one.


Where: Iceland
Date: 1st week in May
Trip: LAX <---> JFK <---> KEF
Actual days in Iceland: 7:00 a.m. May 4 - 8:00 a.m. May 10 (7 full days)
Season: Just before the high season
Temperature: Roughly 41-51 (+ winds)

If you're thinking about going to Iceland, you're 100% looking for adventure and it's likely you're eyeballing the island (it's about 1/5 the size of California) thinking "let's drive around it and do everything" which was our exact mindset for this trip. Luckily, it's 100% doable, depending on your budget, the time of year and your patience for long drives.

The itinerary:
Upon research, we quickly realized the key to doing everything in Iceland which can be summed up in two words:

Just don't.

That is, if you want to get the most out of the everything there is to do, see and eat in Iceland without being in the car 24/7—then you simply must focus on the best. And only the best. 

This is that list.

Things you should know (that we wish we did):

All of Iceland is rated on TripAdvisor, Iceland

Rental cars
Plan to pick one up at the airport and make sure to book it before your trip. That way you are guaranteed a vehicle in your price point and while you'll be driving yourself everywhere, you'll have  flexibility, freedom and less time in transit from one place to the next. Iceland is not a dense country, and traveling by bus will make it seem even less so. I recommend Cars Iceland ($506 for 6 days, 7 nights not including gas).

Regarding the insurance you'll be asked if you want: get everything. We got a deal on the daily rate that included all the dent, gravel, theft, ash, sand (SAAP) insurance you'd ever need regardless of what kind of road you stick to. Oh, and make sure not to leave your door open and have it blown backward by the Icelandic winds that can fiercely pick up out of nowhere; that's not covered. 

Gas Stations
You'll find them periodically throughout Iceland's main throughways; N1 is everywhere, and you should buy a pre-paid gas card on Day 1 so you don't ever find yourself in need of gas when the register is closed (or in the case you don't have a PIN for your credit card, which most people in the U.S. do not).

Grocery Stores
There are several, but Bónus and Krónan are everywhere. Buy all your snacks, picnics and candy here for significantly cheaper than buying anywhere else. 

Located between the airport and Reykjavik, most people go on their first or last day in Iceland. I recommend your last day since it's a great place to relax and reflect. More on this later.

In Iceland, you can't get any liquor over 2.25% alcohol in local grocery stores so you'll need to find the local Vínbúðin (liquor store) for the real stuff.

Places of Interest: 
Throughout Iceland and along the main roads you'll come across signs with the symbol:  and you'll wonder what they mean. Basically markers for "places of interest" with varying ranges of actual interest, the historically or culturally important ones will have interpretive signs (the name for those flat panel signs that read something like a history book) and the rest (like a lovely spot to picnic or a wondrous view) might just have arrow indicators. While you won't miss a lot by not stopping at the ones left out of your guidebook, if you're in the mood simply pull over and investigate. 

That hotdog stand everyone talks about; if there's no line then get one. If there's a line then come back another time. While it won't be the best hot dog you've ever had, it's a cheap bite.

Day 1
Most flights arrive at 7am at Keflavik International Airport. With your rental car, you'll want to head straight to Reykjavik so you can top off on gas, get snacks and set out on your first day. 

One of the only places in Rekyavik that's open early, and it's absolutely delicious. Think fresh sandwiches, intoxicating baguettes, crackly croissants and COFFEE. 

Since you're up early and running on adrenaline, take advantage and tackle the Golden Circle. Must-see stops along the Golden Circle are:

Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park 
The epitome of Icelandic history, Þingvellir is a popular tourist stop and no trip to Iceland is  complete without a hearty stroll around the ruins. When you're super jet lagged you'll wander this place in a daze, but hourly doses of caffeine will get you through.

Gullfoss Waterfall
Gigantic, stunning waterfall with a magnificent roar. Go on, get real close and feel the mist on your face. Have lunch at the cafe & restaurant; opt for the soup of the day (choose between lamb soup and veggie soup) and relish in the accompanying bread and butter and free refills. In general, hearty soup is one of the most economic (and tasty) ways to dine in Iceland.

Strokkur (aka Geysir)
Get ready for a gush of water to shoot out of the ground over 50 feet high at unpredictable intervals! If you're starting to slump from fatigue, grab a coffee or soda and hold your camera steady. 

Kerið  (aka crater)
Quite literally; you can walk around the rim or venture down to circumvent the lake at the basin of this volcanic crater. You'll be quite impressed by the striking emerald hue of the water.

After the completing the Golden Circle, you can head back to stay in Reykjavik OR take the opportunity to continue your way toward Selfoss, a quaint town with plenty of stops for dinner and affordable lodging options. Highly recommend this because you'll be that much closer to Day 2's main activities. 

Since you'll have some time before dinner and sunset, The Ghost Centre in Stokkseyri is a delightful coastal destination. Stokkseyri itself is tiny; a few neighborhood streets flank a lovely coastline and if you're hungry there is one restaurant and one bar. The Ghost Centre is located in the bar, the restaurant is right next door. Fjorubordid is famous for its seafood (lobster) and it's relatively pricey. The Ghost Centre is a little walk-through haunted house that comes with headsets and Icelandic folklore, ghost stories and the occasional frights. After, enjoy a free espresso.

Dinner was at Menam in Selfoss, a Thai restaurant serving decent curries, noodles and various appetizers. 

We stayed at an adorable guesthouse called Bitra, which was basically a huge farm house that's been renovated to be a quaint hostel. Breakfast was included, a lovely home-cooked spread of handmade yogurt (the best I've ever had), toast, meats, fruit, granola and more by the owners. Because it was the off-season we got an entire 4-bed shared room to ourselves, an unlikely occurrence during peak season. About $72 for two.

Day 2
Our designated adventure day, which meant we needed to get to Vatnajökull, Iceland's gigantic icecap and the destination for our 5.5-hour glacier trek. From our hostel to the glacier was a 3 hr and 15 min drive, and with our trek starting at 1 we should have bought lunch when we could (a gas station, perhaps a sandwich or something) instead of arriving at the glacier with just trail mix. Take note!

Glacier Guides is one of the handful of companies at the base of the glacier that offers daily tours. You can meet them there or opt for the bus that scoops you up and drops you off in Reykjavik; I recommend driving yourself for optimal independence. We chose the 1/2 day glacier hike and Glacier Guides provided us with all the gear (crampons), interesting historical and geographical tidbits, ice trekking lessons and small-group tour that we could fit in 5.5 hours. Fascinating and a relatively decent workout, I highly recommend it. About $121 each.

Dinner was in Hofn, a small fishing town with stunning views, at Hafnarbúðin, a quick place to stop for burgers, fish and chips and more. Right near the dock, Hafnarbúðin offers an serene ocean view and fair prices.
 Starting our journey back south, we stayed at Guesthouse Skalafell where our accommodation was a room with two single beds and a private bath in a stand-alone cabin. Breakfast included.

Day 3
This day included many of the stops we skipped during our mad dash from Selfoss to Vatnajökull as we made our way back to Rekyavik.

Cascades of icebergs drifting through the ocean and beaching themselves on black sand was marvelous. Boat tours and such are offered but the highlight is definitely walking on the black beach and taking in all the dichotomy of black sand and ice.

Lunch was at Halldorskaffi in another seaside town in VikReasonably priced with good pizza and unlimited soup. However, had I known about Sveitagrill Miu-Mia's Country Grill at Skogafoss waterfall, I would have waited. About a minute from the base of the waterfall is the little red and white dotted truck that serves the best fish and chips I've ever had. The best. 

Skogafoss is magnificent; it's towering heights makes for mist that travels several feet beyond where it falls, and I hear during the warmer months the surrounding area is great for camping. 

Continuing on our way, we made our second waterfall stop at Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall you can really get up into. And by that, I mean you can walk the stony path that goes up and behind the waterfall for a tremendous moment unlike any other.

Including several stops for candy, the bathroom and a mighty number of , we arrived in Reykjavik in the early evening and checked into the Metropolitan Hotel, our digs for Friday and Saturday night. 

Positioned at the west end of Reykjavik center, our private room included two single beds that we pushed together and a private bath for only $80 per night. The location was perfect; the only downside was the sulfuric (sorry, stench) that permeated from all water sources. Not difficult to "stomach" under usual circumstances, but absolutely unbearable when hungover. 
After settling in, we did what you do on Friday night in Reykjavik: go for a drink. 

Our first (few) were at The Laundromat Cafe, an adorable restaurant/bar that's serves beer for a decent price at happy hour. Next, we got a snack at Reykjavik Chips, basically a fry and beer joint that draws local teens, tourists and locals who want to coat their stomachs before the night really begins. We rounded out our night at The Big Lebowski, of which I remember nothing, aside from the place being packed and the drinks likely not very cheap. 
Oh, and there's a sandwich place called Nonnabitti that sells fries and huge greasy subs of delicious combinations that's open late. And it's good. Like. Really good.

Day 4
Breakfast at Sandholt Bakery; this time, grab a loaf of bread to go for on-the-go snacking. Chewy center, crisp exterior, there's nothing better.

Take a quick jaunt up to Hallgrímskirkja, the stunning church you've likely seen peeking out from what feels like the tallest point in town. After taking in the gigantic pipe organ in the main area pay the $7.50 per person to take the elevator up to the top. From here, you can take in a 360° view of Reykjavik through wrought-iron window cages for a very instagramable moment.

Lunch should be at the must-stop Svarta Kaffid. Up a pin-narrow wood staircase, this second-story establishment is known for it's bread bowl of "unlimited soup" of which there are two varieties (one meat, one creamy vegetarian) and beer. At 1550 kr ($13.31) per bowl, it's one of the tastiest and cheapest meals in town.

Next up is the pool. Yes, pool, and no matter what time of the year, Icelanders are known for their pools/hot tubs which are a huge component of their social networks. It's where deals are made, couples meet and neighbors mingle. 

We chose Laugardalslaug, the city's largest pool (and by pool, I mean pool, waterslide, hot tubs, gym and more) that's just a short drive from the town center. A small fee gets you into the facility, a rubber wristband that doubles as the lock to your personal locker and as long as you want in the pool. You'll be delighted to see that shoes must be taken off before entering the locker room, bodies must be washed (sans suit) before entering the pool and you must be completely dry before going to your locker post swim. This means that the floors are dry, the pools are clean and everything feels extraordinarily sanitary. Bravo!

After a few hours swimming, lounging and going down the waterslide (yes, adults can too), it's time for a quick pre-dinner visit to Harpa, the concert house on the water. With class walls, hypnotic stairs and angles you expect from only the latest architecture, entry is free so be sure to check it out and wander around.

Once you've racked up significant appetite, check out Frederiksen Ale House, a gastropub with a phenomenal happy hour and even better food and drink. Here, we dove into the fish and chips, the "bucket of bacon" (yes...bucket...) and steamed buns (I suppose it's a sort of fusion-type place). After dinner, make sure to check out another bar and mosey home once you've hit your limit.

Day 5
Bright and early, we stopped for more breakfast on the road at Sandholt Bakery (you laugh, but it's that delicious) and made our way to the Snæfellsnes peninsula (north west of Reykjavik). Probably our busiest day, here are some of the highlights:

Gerðuberg Basalt Columns
Made from lava, the columns are max 45 feet tall. Drive up  as close as you can, park, get out 
and walk up close.

Rauofeldsgja Canyon
A 30-minute mini hike into the crevice of a hillside and you'll find yourself face-first with a waterfall. Make sure to read up about the legend.

A tiny fishing village with coastal walking paths and fantastical rock formations. Get out, stretch your legs and take in the view: you might just catch sight of a whale!

For lunch, make your way to Hellnar for the cutest are around. Apparently it's well-know fordelicious and affordable soup. Make sure to drive ALL the way down the road (there is another cafe right before you head downhill). Don't stop till you get to Fjoruhusid!

Vatnshellir Cave
Journey to the center of the earth via winding staircase. Dark, full of curious rock formations and colorful lichen, this 45-minute tour through Summit Adventure will take you to a handful of caves in this "8000 year old lava tube created by volcanic eruption from a nearby crater." Look for the little hut on the right side of the road in Snaefellsbaer. About $28 per adult.

A stunning pebbled beach known for the reminisce of a shipwreck and a series of big stones which people tried to lift and test their strength.

Fully Strong: 339 lbs
Half-Strong: 220 lbs
Weakling: 119 lbs
Bungler: 50.73 lbs

Those in the level of "Weakling" and below were considered the frontier of wimphood and unsuitable for the fisherman's calling.

Known as the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell is opulent most times of day but most striking at sunset when its outline illuminates against the falling sky. A great stop before entering Grundarfjörður; make sure to park, walk around the waterfall that's across the road.

Our ultimate destination on the peninsula was Sugandisey in Stykkisholmur, the lighthouse on top a small hill with a view that extends beyond what your eye can comprehend. Folklore tells that you must not speak a word as you make the climb to the top; read more on the sign at the base of the staircase. The drive was 30 min each way, so the perfect jaunt before dinner.

Grundarfjörður HI Hostel
Right by the water, this hostel offers a variety of accommodation of which we chose the 2-bed room with a private bath. With ample parking and access to the communal kitchen (with a glorious view of the sunset) this was one of my favorite places to stay. Like most remote villages in Iceland, there were two spots for dinner; we chose the local bar.

Get a burger and beer. Don't expect much more than that and you'll be content that you got a hot meal and a cold brew.

Day 6

The goals for this day were multifold; get coffee, make our way back to Reykjavik in time to go to the Phallological Museum (aka Penis Museum) and to the Blue Lagoon by our 4pm reservation. We had an early start, which means nothing was open for coffee until we hit a gas station around 10am.

Our one detour was for Glymur, a hike to a waterfall that includes walking through caves, crossing a river and much more. Quite possibly the prettiest hike I've ever done, and one of the activities that is as must-a-do as the Blue Lagoon. 

We managed to arrive in Rekyavik around lunchtime, where we had burgers (yes, again and yes, it's one of the cheapest meatcentric meals you can get in Iceland that's not the hotdog) at Prikid and visited the Phallological Museum for $12.88 per person. This fascinating spot houses "a collection [of] 282 specimens from 93 different species of animals." Quite the trip, and a must if you have some time to kill and a good sense of humor.

And finally, our crescendo: The Blue Lagoon

Embarking upon the infamous BL feels much like Jurassic Park made a baby with a day spa. Not to be missed, BL sits alone in its massiveness but 45 minutes from Reykjavik amidst a flat, dusty landscape.

As noted, there are a few ticket options for BL, ranging from 50-80 Euros. If you have your own towel, get the basic ticket, otherwise you'll want to pay the 15 extra Euros for the towel and get a robe, drink, extra mask and more. Our ticket for 50 Euros included lagoon entry and a mud mask. Everything else (like drinks) can be purchased a la carte.

You'll wonder how long you'll want to soak, and the answer is forever. Simply, melt into the blue-white murky abyss and you'll probably emerge 4 hours later, several drinks in and in a state of relaxation I can only equate to...well, nothing. Don't forget your GoPro or underwater camera!

Our last night in Iceland was in a tiny shore town but 20 minutes from the airport called Keflavik. An Airbnb of a full 1-bedroom apartment, it was a good deal with a view across the water of Reykjavik; the only downside being that there was nowhere to eat dinner. Well, there were a few places but they were either wildly expensive or fast food. So, we opted for sandwiches and a pile of fries from none other than the trusty Nonnabitti. After, we indulged in ice cream slurry things and candy from the local teen hangout while pondering what it must be like to live in a town the size of five city blocks back home.

With our flight at 8am the next day, we called it a night and a trip well done.