Summer in Iceland: Planning

abraham_ortelius-islandia-ca_1590
Abraham Ortelius’ Islandia circa 1590, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ultima Thule: “beyond the borders of the known world”

Pining for the fjords, thoughts of a summer in Iceland send my Nordic heart a-viking…

This summer we celebrate my partner R.’s 50th birthday by traveling north north north, almost to the Arctic Circle, to Iceland – land of fire and ice. We’ll spend a week with camera and notebook exploring Iceland’s insomniac landscapes under a midnight sun. If I can stay awake: there’s a nine-hour time difference between Tokyo and Reykjavik.

R. and I first visited a couple of years ago in spring, a trip that was one part intervention into the ever-widening gyre of our stressed, workaholic lives in Tokyo, and one part mad dash to catch the aurora during the vernal equinox (R. got pics; I slept through it).

We couldn’t get enough of Iceland’s  austere, astringent beauty: the glassy fjords, active volcanoes, creeping glaciers, and haunted wastelands. We vowed a return trip, as we do every time we spend a few days in a place that needs a lifetime to explore (which is every place…)

And this time, we mean it. With a little out-of-the-box thinking, I re-routed my annual migration route from Tokyo to Toronto to include stopovers both ways in Reykjavik, coming and going.

On the first leg, I’ll have a few days alone to get over jet lag and explore Reykjavik. I look forward to some time just to wander the small city with a camera.

On the stopover on the return flight to Tokyo I’ll meet R. for a week of independent car touring in the west and north.

So, on a weekend in late January we put on some appropriate Icelandic music (“Little Talks,” Of Monsters and Men) and start to plan… and quickly discover that, if anything, Iceland is almost too much on the tourist map these days. A half-year out, and already we find ourselves scrambling after quickly filling flights and hotel rooms.

Seats on flights from Tokyo to Reykjavik via Copenhagen on SAS and Icelandair were no problem, but it’s a different story from Reykjavik to Toronto. I just barely managed to get on board the flight I wanted. And what started as a casual browse for accommodations turned into a panic attack when room availability in Vik, one of the towns we wanted to use as a base to explore the south, was already nul. Even big-city Reykjavik (population about 119,000) is already more than a third full: 38% in June, when I first arrive; 44% in July, on the return flight to Tokyo.

Then, as we continue to research, we realize that maybe we shouldn’t rely exclusively on one travel site such as Booking.com: yes, the room rates might be lower than if we contact places directly, and it’s helpful to see what availability is like in real time, but the travel site seems to fill up faster than the hotels themselves. After an initial panic-driven flurry of reservations to make sure we’d have somewhere to stay in high-season July, we check at the source several listings which previously seemed off-limits… and manage to upgrade several of the small rooms with shared baths we’d been consigned to, to larger rooms with private baths.

Lesson learned: don’t get lazy and rely on the convenience of a single travel site: shop around.

So after a few weeks of intense planning, booking, and booking again, we’ve got our itinerary for a weeklong (10 days, in my case) trip to Iceland in June and July:

I will arrive in Reykjavik the third week in June and spend a few days solo in the city. I don’t have a definite plan at this point, other than to walk around town with my camera – hopefully to catch some of the sites, such as the volcano-inspired Hallgrímskirkja church and harbour-side Sun Voyager sculpture illuminated in polar “white night” 24-hour sunlight. Then again, the last time I was in Iceland I managed to sleep through the aurora lightshow, so I don’t know how much I’ll get to see of the midnight sun…

A few weeks later, mid-July, I’ll return to Reykjavik from Toronto (about a six hour flight) and meet R’s flight from Tokyo. Then we’ll rent a car – two-wheel drive, not four – to explore.

One of the best things about travel is the anticipation, the planning of the trip. Because we toured Iceland on that aurora-hunting expedition a few years ago, mostly around the “Golden Circle” route in southwest Iceland, this trip we’re gonna stretch things out a bit and hit some specific destinations which have been on our list:

Landmannalaugar for day hikes through colourful rhyolite mountains and lava fields.

“Diamond Circle:” the town of Akureyri near the Arctic Circle; geologically active Lake Myvatn; and the powerful Dettifoss waterfall

The fjords of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, including the town of Gundarfjordor and Kirkjufell mountain

A half day in Reykjavik for shopping

A road trip south, including Seljelandsfoss, Black Sand Beach and the town of Vik, Svartifoss and Vatnajökull National Park; Jokulsarlon lagoon; the Glacier Kayak Adventure at Heinaberg Lagoon

The double rainbow – if we’re lucky – of Skogafoss waterfall, near the south coast

And as a send-off, before a 15-hour return flight to Tokyo, we’ll indulge in the silica mud baths of the Blue Lagoon.

That’s the plan so far, and travel to Iceland being as popular as it is, we’ve already had to make reservations for all nights’ accommodations and most activities, though we can probably hold off on booking a time at the Blue Lagoon until we’re in-country.

So in the meantime, there’s a lot of great Icelandic music to listen to (see links to a couple of current faves, below), as well as some reading up to do…

More to come!

Music Videos

Of Monsters and Men:

Bjork, Human Behavior and Joga

Of Monsters and Men, Dirty Paws, King and Lionheart, Little Talks, Love Love Love

Samaris, Ég Vildi Fegin Verda

Plus, of course, anything by Sigur Ros, especially Valtari Mystery Film Experiment…)

 

 

Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Provincial Park

Killarney Lodge cabin and Canoe; Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin P

Algonquin Provincial Park lies roughly halfway between Toronto and Ottawa, in southcentral Ontario. It is Shield country, a piece of Canada’s iconic north.Back at the turn of the last century, this part of the country drew members of the Group of Seven painting troupe,  a.k.a. The Algonquin School, to its deep pine and maple forests, moose-haunted spruce bogs, and glacier-scraped lakes. Check out permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Collection, or the National Gallery in Ottawa to see what I mean… 

Those paintings and, later, explorations of those forests and lakes by foot and canoe, inspired in me what has become a life-long love of nature and the outdoors. What started as a Boy Scout handbook of adventure, with just enough danger to keep a young man with an over-active imagination interested (the occasional bear attack; the murder of a famous painter), has matured into what has become today something almost… spiritual.

In any case, these days the park’s natural environment still inspires painters and photographers, including yours truly (see my Algonquin photo gallery at 500px).

Today, despite living in the world’s largest city, I continue to seek out time in nature  to reconnect with the grace, beauty, and adventure which I found first in those paintings and later in the real thing, Canada Wild, red and tooth and claw. My travels have taken me to the Canadian Rockies, the Japanese and European Alps, the elf-painted wastelands of Iceland. Still, I return to Ontario every summer to re-connect with friends and family, so when my partner R. was ready to experience some Canadian wilderness, Algonquin was one of the first places I brought her.

This was not her first trip to the Great Outdoors – she has accompanied me on many of the trips noted above. Still, she is more comfortable in a cabin than tent, so when we decided to visit Algonquin I arranged a stay at Killarney Lodge on the shore of Lake of Two Rivers in the southern part of the Park, along the Highway 60 corridor. From here we hiked highland trails, canoed the interior lakes (though we didn’t attempt any of Algonquin’s notorious portages), and cycled along an old rail bed through bear meadows.

These days, I have to admit, Algonquin feels a little more comfortable and a little less wilderness than it did when I was a young man – though thoughts of trips into the remote backcountry still set my wanderlust a-tremble. Even so, the busy Highway 60 corridor still provides a memorable first taste of that bog-N Nature which got me out of doors all those years ago…

New York City, 2007

A gallery of pictures from Manhattan and Coney Island on 500px

 

Angkor Wat

Pictures from a trip to Angkor Wat, and the nearby city of Siem Reap plus The Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center in the spring of 2007. Check out the full gallery of pictures at 500px.

Georgian Bay Sea Kayak Odyssey 2006

A week with Outward Bound

Also read Georgian Bay Odyssey on Exit Booted 2.0

 

Montreal 2006 Photo Drift

Check out this and my other galleries at 500px!

Canada’s New Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) Entry Requirement

A FAQ for the eTA

Last updated: 12 August, 2016

I created this page because the same few questions keep coming up over and over again in discussion forums, and it would be useful to have answers together in one place.

In addition, as a Canadian I feel bad for travellers suffering through what was once one of the easiest border crossings in the world. Sorry, eh!

First, a caveat: I am not a lawyer, and I don’t work for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, or any other government agency responsible for the new Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA). Nor, for that matter, am I in any way connected to any of the “agencies” which have sprung up online to assist with the eTA application process. However, as an active member of a few online travel forums, and a travel blogger and writer, I find myself being inexorably pulled into – sometimes heated – discussions on Canada’s newest entry requirement.

So this FAQ brings together the best understanding based on personal experience, first-hand accounts, and research from government and other sources.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of confusion, misinformation, and strongly felt but misguided opinion about the eTA, amongst would-be travellers to Canada – and sometimes the well-meaning people who try to help them.

These problems are compounded by some confusing word choices in official government sources, chiefly from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The recently announced leniency period, while it should have resolved these issues at least in the short term, has often just added to the confusion by introducing another level of complexity.

Here, I will attempt to offer as best I can my understanding of the eTA as it develops. Please note that this page is a work in progress: I will do my best to tell you what I know, and where practical will include sources of information. My understanding will change as new information and first-hand accounts become available.

Finally, as your teachers told you in school, don’t believe everything you read – especially online, always check the sources yourself!

Also, a request: please feel free to share your own research and personal experiences in the Comments space, so that others can benefit. However, this is not the place to ask questions related to your eTA application: discussion forums such as Thorn Tree and, in particular, the Canada forum at TripAdvisor are already full of threads on precisely this topic. I will structure this information based on generic questions which address the topics which seem to be coming up most frequently online.

 

Warning: Avoid online agencies selling assistance with the eTA application process. The government of Canada website, which has .gc.ca in the URL, only charges $7 for the application. (12/08/16)

Discussion forums are full of rip-off stories and hassles. Check out this thread, for example, on TripAdvisor: https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g153339-i49-k9522033-Canadian_eta_beware_of_scams-Canada.html.

As I noted, government of Canada websites end with .gc.ca. Anything else, especially .com, and it’s not an official government site but something else – such as a profit-making company. For the record, the cost of an eTA application directly through the government website is $7. ‘Nuff said. I hope… Here’s the URL for the government’s site with a link to the TA application page, amonf other resources on the eTA   http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/visit/eta.asp If you’re wondering, the “cic” in this case means Citizenship and Immigration Canada, a department of the federal government.

Here’s the government’s official position on fee-charging agencies, and whether they’re a scam (spoiler: if they submitted your application as promised, it’s not a scam) http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp?qnum=1233&top=16

 

Do I need to apply for an eTA during the leniency period? (28/07/16)

The official word from CIC is “yes,” but it will be very interesting to hear any first-hand reports from travellers who arrive without having started the application process. Please add your experience in the comments below!

Here’s what the CIC says on the matter, from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp?qnum=1235&top=16 (accessed 28/07/16, 10:03 am Tokyo time):

(Note that what they do not explain is whether a flight agent or border officer can and will check to see that an application has been made, if still pending)

Do I really need an eTA to fly to or transit through Canada since there is a leniency period?

Yes, visa-exempt foreign nationals are expected to have an eTA to fly to or transit through Canada.

However, until September 29, 2016, you can board your flight without an eTA, as long as you have appropriate travel documents such as a valid passport. During this leniency period, border services officers can let you enter the country as long as you meet the other requirements to enter Canada.

Before you travel to Canada—even if it is when you check in for your flight—you can apply for an eTA using any device with an internet connection, including a mobile phone. It takes just a few minutes to complete the form. All you need to apply is a passport, a credit card, and an email address.

In most cases, the eTA will be granted within minutes of applying and will be electronically linked to your passport. Once approved, an eTA is valid for five years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. You can make multiple visits to Canada with a valid eTA. It is best to get an eTA as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, this explanation, like several others connected to the eTA, uses ambiguous language: What does it mean, exactly, to say that travellers are “expected” to have an etA, even during the leniency period? If it is essential to at least start the application process before arriving in Canada, why not simply say so? For example, the same condition could be spelled out more clearly by stating “Yes, visa-exempt foreign nationals must have applied for an eTA to fly to or transit through Canada.” Here, as on some other pages, ambiguous word choice is creating confusion about what is required of travllers during the leniency period.

Note that this page is part of a larger Help Centre which provides the CIC’s official answer to this and a bevy of related questions at http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/results-by-topic.asp?st=16.7 (accessed 28 July, 2016 10:08 am Tokyo time)

How long does it take to receive an eTA? (28/07/16)

This is one of the most variable, and therefore frustrating aspects of the experience for travellers. CIC claims a turnaround time of “a confirmation within minutes” in “most cases” (http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp?qnum=1063&top=16). In other cases, such as when additional documentation is required, you should expect an email with next steps within 72 hours (http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp?qnum=1084&top=16). However, the actual processing time seems to vary widely: on this discussion thread on TripAdvisor “(eTA Application” https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g153339-i49-k9318890-o110-ETA_Application-Canada.html) some applicants are reporting wait times of a few weeks to as long as a month – though ultimately successful!

 

Can I still travel to Canada if approval for my eTA is pending? (29/07/16)

Yes. This question appears to have a blissfully straightforward answer: the leniency period seems to have been created to meet just this case. Hence the wording

Until September 29, 2016, travellers who do not have an eTA can board their flight, as long as they have appropriate travel documents, such as a valid passport. During this leniency period, border services officers can let travellers arriving without an eTA into the country, as long as they meet the other requirements to enter Canada. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/results-by-topic.asp?st=16.7

Do Canada and the US share visa and travel permit info? (28/07/16)

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, appears to be yes. I quote from a Citizenship and Immigration Backgrounder online at http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/backgrounders/2012/2012-12-13.asp (accessed 28 July, 2016 9:22 am Tokyo time):

The adoption of the Immigration Information Sharing Treaty enables our two countries to share systematically information from third-country nationals who apply for a visa or permit to travel to either country…

When a third-country national applies to Canada for a visa or a permit, or claims asylum, Canada will send an automated request for data to the United States. The request will contain limited information, such as name and date of birth in the case of biographic sharing, or an anonymous fingerprint in the case of biometric sharing. If the identity matches that on a previous application, immigration information may be shared, such as whether the person has previously been refused a visa or removed from the other country. All information shared as part of the initial request will be automatically purged from U.S. systems regardless of whether a match has been found.

The same process would apply in reverse when a third-country national applies to the U.S. for a visa or claims asylum.

Can I travel to Canada anyway during the leniency period if my eTA has been refused? (28/07/16)

Apparently, no. Here’s the word from the Citizenship and immigration Canada page www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp… (accessed 28 July, 2016 10:08 am Tokyo time) on the status of refused eTA seekers during the leniency period:

“If your application was refused, you should not plan or undertake any travel to Canada, even during the leniency period. If you decide to travel to Canada with a refused eTA during the leniency period, you may experience delays or be prevented from entering the country.

We encourage you to reapply for an eTA only once you have addressed the reason(s) leading to the refusal of your application.”

That “may experience delays” at first sounds encouraging, but I wouldn’t want to arrive just to be turned back at the border. Under the circumstances, I would not travel to Canada during the leniency period if my application were refused unless it were a dire emergency: a serious family crisis or the like. Just my toonie.

 

Why might my eTA application be refused? (28/07/16)

a brief overview of reasons for inadmissibility: cic.gc.ca/english/…index.asp (accessed 28 July, 2016 10:42 am Tokyo time)

a more detailed description: cic.gc.ca/english/…who.asp (accessed 28 July, 2016 10:42 am Tokyo time)

 

Does an eTA guarantee entry to Canada? (29/07/16)

This topic, more than any other, seems to exercise some of the regular members of online discussion forums. The problem, the confusion, seems to stem from the variety of terms being used in different places and times by people, with varying degrees of rigour as to their literal vs. connotative meanings. Thus, an eTA is an “authorization to travel,” meaning you have permission to board an airplane to travel to Canada. It is also at times called an “entry requirement”, and while this seems straightforward I believe what is meant is that you require an eTA to board an airplane, which is the first step in the entry process to Canada by air. At this level, the vexed forum discussions seem rather pedantic…

Of more concern is cases where travellers hope that a successful eTA application will over-ride conditions which previously prevented travel to Canada such as a criminal conviction.  THIS DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE THE CASE. Think of it this way: an eTA will get you to the stage of an interview with a border services officer at the airport in Canada. However, in that interview you must still satisfy all the conditions previously in place for admission to Canada. If you were barred from entry before because of an issue such as a criminal conviction, you will likely be barred again – that hasn’t changed. What HAS changed is that now you must prove you qualify to be interviewed for possible admission before you even arrive in Canada. Hope that helps…

Media and Other Sources of Ongoing Interest

Travel discussion forums have lit up with the topic of the eTA, especially as frustrated and confused travellers have started to run into problems with the application process. Two discussion forums which I participate in and have threads on the eTA are Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, and TripAdvisor.

Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Canada Forum https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/americas-canada/canada has some discussion on specific aspects of the eTA application process, such as on paying fees and juggling passports for dual citizens.

TripAdvisor’s Canada Travel Forum https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g153339-i49-Canada.html has been extremely active on the subject of the eTA, and continues to have several threads with sometimes quite heated exchanges on many aspects of the eTA. There’s some useful information here, from people who have researched the topic as well as from – a hopefully growing number of – people who have shared their first-hand experience.

“Canadian government ‘very concerned’ as fake eTA websites scam hapless travellers for 17 times the cost”   Scam Alert: fake eTA websites (National Post; July 17)   http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-government-very-concerned-as-fake-eta-websites-scam-hapless-travellers

“Canada’s New Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) Procedure: Obtain an eTA Before You Fly…But No Enforcement Yet”   eTA’s “soft deadline” (Lexology.com, legal newsfeed service; from April 11, 2016)  http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=a3c76d4b-b7a9-44bf-ac87-ae970045cb82