A Penguin Beach in London? Yes.

A happy black-footed penguin dives in the new London Zoo beach pool

I heard about a guy whose research is on European Penguin genetics, and my natural response was “which European penguins?” But it just so happens that there are enough domesticated penguins in zoos around Europe that their genetic history and breeding requires a lot of monitoring. Penguin adults are swapped to avoid inbreeding, chicks are bred in incubators, and penguin population dynamics and species spread is totally controlled by people like him and other scientists.

Learn how you can adopt Ricky at http://www.zsl.org/penguins

The London Zoo has a pretty large penguin roster, and they just recently opened their new penguin exhibit – the first penguin beach in England! They have Blackfooted penguins (aka the African penguin), Humboldts, Macaroni penguins, and one lonely rock-hopper penguin named Ricky who enjoys pruning friendly people.

During the exhibit launch, speeches focused on the seriousness of climate change and depleting fish stocks, since these result in catastrophic consequences for penguin breeding and survival. No average person in England or elsewhere might understand the importance of eating and living sustainably, but the carbon footprint of the entire western world is the root of both problems. Penguin populations worldwide are depleting, and as global warming melts the pack ice in Antarctica, penguins are losing their nautral habitat, the rich fishing waters, and even the ability to breed.

a mixture of penguins chillin on the beach

At the zoo, penguins are fed all their meals and receive medical attention and antibiotics whenever necessary, so even though many want to see these penguins in the wild exhibiting natural behavior, I’d say theyre pretty damn happy to stay. These penguins have now been domesticated for  generations, so living in the wild might be impossible for them anyway;  the point of the Penguin Beach and other zoo-kept colonies of penguins is to allow us to better understand them and let people, who know nothing about them or Antartica, be more aware of issues surrounding them, and perhaps fall in love with penguins enough to help make a difference.

I have family in London I meant to see but with a 2 day delay on my trip (thanks Grimsvotn), my entire London experience was centered around penguins. I stayed with 2 friends that I met last year in Antarctica, a penguin zookeeper and a Dr. Penguinologist (his actual title), and also squeezed in some time with a fellow globetrotter who travels the world surfing and photographing it (find him on facebook – Murray Ash Photography). I spent a couple days in quaint little Oxford, saw a lot of beautiful things and heard some angelic sounds like a baroque trio and organ recital in 300 year old churches, but didn’t learn nearly as much there as I did in my one day at the zoo.

the Bodleian Library in Radcliffe Square, Oxford

Hopefully my adoration of penguins has come across clearly in this blog, and if you ever get the chance to cuddle one at the zoo, swim with one in Galapagos, and walk through a million of them in Antarctica, I guarantee you’ll be a sucker for penguins too. Now Im off to South Africa for more jackass penguin loving, not called jackasses because they’re rude (no such thing as a mean penguin) but because they howl like very cute, tuxedo-dressed donkeys.

Interesting Links:

Support Penguin Research and Meet Dr. Penguinologist: http://www.zsl.org/conservation/regions/antarctica/

My favourite things about being in Iceland

Only in Reykjavik can you run into the president twice in one week. The first time I saw him, he was attending the 85th birthday of my former elementary school, and had parked his License Plate #1 Lexus outside adorned in one tiny Icelandic flag. I don’t think many presidents attend elementary birthday schools in other countries, or roll up without any security, additional escorts, or media in sight.

the presidents car and its patriotic Icelandic flag decoration

The second time I met Olafur Ragnar we wound up having a small chit-chat about the meaning of life (thank you, Viktor Frankl) at the bottom of a mountain without anyone else around except his tired dog and grumpy wife. Between these two meetings I attended a culture day parade and saw the mayor of Reykjavik stroll past casually, just looking more like the comedian-actor personality he’s more famous for being. Only in Iceland can you see such important politicians leading regular, day to day lives, without anyone bothering them or being followed by a press frenzy.

Maybe that’s not as impressive as it sounds since Iceland is a pretty small place, and people brush shoulders with important politicians and famous celebrities all the time. But, the benefit of having so few people in a country means you run into people you know all the time, and the everyone-knows-everyone mentality makes it a very welcoming place that truly feels like home everytime you come back to it, especially from insanely large and anonymous places like New York and London.

trying to stay cool, drinking a mojito

The smallness of Reykjavk is also refreshing to travel within, since it doesn’t take longer than 15 minutes to get almost anywhere in the city, and we don’t even have (or need) a rail or underground public transportation system to gobble up two or three hours of our day just commuting (I never miss the London Tube!).

The smallness also makes Iceland incredibly safe, with very little crime, but has the catch of making dating or personal privacy a little more difficult to manage. Fashion trends and businesses quickly phase in and out, and currently, its all about mojito’s, sushi, juniform and sexy stockings. And thank God hotdogs never go out of style, since the first thing I crave when I get home is always a Baejarins Beztu pylsur.

free seaswimming is on daily now at Nautholsvik

My most favourite thing about Iceland is probably Icelandic water. The swimming culture is fantastically alive, with public pools in every neighbourhood and seaswimming rising in popularity all year round. When roaming the Icelandic countryside, hotspring water baths and running streams provide natural pools and clean, drinkable water, infinitely disposable to you at no cost. I was recently at a café at JFK International Airport, and out of their 7 bottled water choices, 3 were Icelandic, and cost between $2.65-$3.50. Its such a blessing to get home, turn on my tap, and have the cleanest water pour out of the sink at colder-than-fridge temperature and saturate my thirst with the best tasting little H2O molecules I’ve ever had… for free. Any other drinks, especially alcoholic ones, make up for this benefit by being absurdly overpriced, but its nice not to have to budget for your daily water supply and constantly worry about the sanitation of the water you’re drinking like I so commonly obsess about elsewhere.

Harpa, Iceland's shiny new concert hall

a private concert in the big red room of Vikingur rehearsing Grieg's Piano Concerto

It really is quite new and shiny, with those stories and stories of diagonal glass panes and only officially opened since Saturday. It has a kind of rocky history, with funding issues and construction halted for months following the economic collapse, but elves had nothing to do with it so no need to worry about any of that bad stuff from the past. There was also a bit of confusion with the first concerts, since the ‘opening’ concert was May 6th, but it sold out so quickly that they added two more shows May 4th and 5th. So, May 4th, its arguable´opening date´blew the crowd away with a Grieg piano concerto performed by Juilliard´s Vikingur and Beethovens 9th Symphony conducted by no other than Valdimir Ashkenazy himself, but gave spectators only a sneak peak of the barely functional, half finished Harpa.

Then, last Friday there was another ‘opening concert´, and Saturday May 14th was the ´open house,´ and so now after a lot of openings, its open alright, as well as all its bars and restaurants and halls functional, but still not complete.

May 3rd, the bar and restaurant not quite ready for opening night #1

From inside, you can still scrape your feet along construction dust and the entire front hall is still hidden behind plank wood instead of the glorious, multi-coloured glass panes. From outside, gravel and heavy machinery surround the building and the massive dug out pit to its left, yet, somehow none of this takes away from the excitement and excessive beauty Harpa represents.

24 hours before the house opened

I can´t wait to see local bands and world-renowned artists take the brightly-lit stages and big, red concert hall by storm; once the surrounding space and cultural amenities are all complete, it will be an epic extension of cozy little downtown Reykjavik to the grandeur new east harbour.

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On my personal to-do list this summer: watch as many concerts as financially possible, eat nordic tapas at Munnharpan, and wine and dine at the fine Kolabrautin.

Join me?

Head chef Þráinn at Kolabrautin "then"; check out "now" at facebook.com/kolabrautin

House Drinks in Reykjavik

My blogs are typically about the places I visit but when I’m in Reykjavik I have to be a little more creative since I don’t really consider myself a tourist here. After being inspired by chef friends and Bocuse d’or, I thought it’d be fun to write about cuisine in Iceland, but there are a lot more qualified food critics out there, as well as tons of articles on Icelandic dining. Instead, I chose to do a little bar hopping, tasting some of the signature, house-specialty drinks those same restaurants or bars offer.

The rating scale we came up with was a likert-like letter scale from K to V. K stood for Kryptonite, V for VaVaVoom, and between the two extremes, Funky, Dousie, Quirky, Perky and Stupendous. The rating order is still not 100% certain, and for a while I was sure Kryptonite should be the best rating since I thought it meant explosively great; for those like me who don’t know what it is, its actually a fictitious element (the only one in the comic world) that can overcome Superman.

Annika and the Pole Vault

1. Bjarni Fel

Bartender: Annika

Drink: Pole Vault

Ingredients: Raspberry rum, apple schnapps, fizzy lemonade and grenadine.

Verdict: Kryptonite

Their other house specialty drink is called Bench Press (whiskey, triple sec, orange liqueur, martini bianco, lemon and coke) and both are 1700kr. Id say stick to beer, both because its a sports bar and because Annika says she’s never drank it and rarely makes them.

2. Ensku Barinn/ The English Pub

Jói and Steven Segal

Bartender: Joi

Drink: Steven Segal

Ingredients: Rum, Passoa, Strawberry Liquor, Pineapple and Cranberry Juice, Grenadine

Verdict: Perky

Jói explained the bar doesn´t have a house specialty per se, but he (as the manager and award winning fastest bartender) makes up his own house drink. This particular drink was inspired by a customer who asked for a strawberry cocktail, probably because of the sunny Sunday afternoon enjoyedsitting outside on the patio. He also mentioned it changes from day to day, so this drink didn´t even have a name until after he made it. Extra points for coming up with a great name.

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Bjarki on the Floor by Oddur

3. The Dubliner

Bartender: Oddur

Drink: Bjarki on the Floor

Ingredients: Orange juice, vodka, peach schnapps, banana schnapps, brown sugar, grenadine, lime juice, and sprite

Verdict: Funky

picking the right orange juice

Halfway through mixing this cocktail, Oddur realized he didnt have orange juice, so actually went out and bought some just to make this house specialty, known to knock guys named Bjarki down to the floor and a big favourite among the female staff at Dubliner.

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Marija making the perfect mojito

4. Thorvaldsen

Bartender: Marija

Drink: Thorvaldsens Mojito

Ingredients: Rum, Raspberry Rum, mint, blueberries, strawberries, brown sugar, and sprite.

Verdict: VaVaVoom

We spent about an hour at Marija´s bar, keeping her from closing, picking her brain about the perfect way to mix a mojito. We also got a geography lesson, talked about all the specialty alcohols available from all over the world, and discussed salsa and tango dancing (which happens to pair very well with Mojitos on Thursday nights at Thorvaldsen)

all the citrus goodness getting mixed in

5. Radisson (Saga & 1919)

Bartender: Kris

Drink: Sour Mix

Ingredients: Orange bitter, grapefruit soda, tequila, vodka, triple sec, malibu, lime, orange, and lemon

Verdict: Stupendous

The bar and lounge at this downtown hotel doesn’t have a specific house drink, but Kris makes specialty drinks according to the tastes of his customers. His usual question is “do you like sweet or sour?”, and whips up an appropriate concoction according to their answer. This sour mix was his personal favourite. At Radisson Hotel Saga, the bartender Erol makes a drink called Delek, winner of the Finlandia cup a couple years ago, and is a mix of vodka, strawberries and soda. Also delicious.

Heiða drizzling the melted chocolate

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6. Hotel Reykjavik

Bartender: Heida

Drink: Forest Martini

Ingredients: Vodka, Cocoa liquor, cream, strawberries, topped with warm melted chocolate.

Verdict: well, its more like a desert in a martini glass, and definitely the first martini I´ve ever had to eat… so I would say quirky. Also a little deadly, since its only a 6 oz drink and 3 of those ounces are untasteable vodka shots.

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7. Fish Market

David and his Volcano

Bartender: David

Drink: Volcano

Ingredients: Absolut vodka pear, crushed berries, butterscotch vanilla schnapps, passion fruit puree, pineapple juice, vanilla flavor, grenadine, and edible lava rocks

Verdict: VaVaVoom.

an assortment of passionate drinks

The theme of his bar was definitely passion, as he made two more passion fruit drinks called Chili Passion and Passion Caiprinhia. Those were thought up by the owner Águst, and the chili one was really spicy. Just before I left, he made me blind taste the drink he´ll be using at an upcoming bartending competition, and Im not sure what it was but it involved a lot of rhubarb and deliciousness. David explained at Fish Market they are always trying to make new drinks that challenge stereotypical taste profiles, and I would certainly agree they are accomplishing this goal with all their exotic fruits and creative toppings.

The best part about writing this article wasn’t actually the great drinks, but the accidental travel experience I felt like I got from chatting to all the bartenders. Only a couple were Icelandic, and the others represented Hungary, Ireland, Panama, Turkey and Serbia. I feel like I heard a lot of great stories and made some new friends, so hopefully one day I can invite them all for a drink made specially by me 🙂

Oh, and also, if you’re a bartender in Reykjavik reading this article and have a great drink I should try, I know an aspiring drink critic, so be in touch…