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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Iceland: one day’s drive to last a lifetime

Above: My wife, Mary Pat, standing amid chunks of ice from the glacier ice lagoon Jökulsárlón.

The main question I've had to field in the weeks leading up to my visit to Iceland has been a simple one-word query: “Why?” Iceland is on very few bucket lists of travel destinations (my former colleague Dan Mitchinson, who is now living in New Zealand, being one notable exception).

In fact, most people don't think of Iceland at all unless they recall the volcano eruption in 2010 that disrupted so many international flights and stranded thousands of travelers. That specific volcano, by the way, bears a name that is one of the only Icelandic words I have learned to pronounce: Eyjafjallajökull.

The simple answer is that I came here eight days ago (I fly home today) with my wife to preview a trip that she will be making in May with a larger delegation of U.S. visitors. But considering that Icelandair is making it easy for people who are already heading to Europe to make an Iceland stopover — “at no additional airfare!” — a visit to Iceland makes a lot more sense to anyone heading east across the Atlantic.

Yesterday, while lounging in the geothermal waters of popular Blue Lagoon, we met a New York couple who were stopping over en route to London before catching a cruise to the Canary Islands.

So that simple one-word answer can now be doubled: “Why not?”

Anyway, as this is my last blog post before I catch my Icelandair flight to Seattle (and then the 50-minute hop home), I thought I'd share the best part of our drive around this island (only nine-tenths the size of Ohio): the stretch of the country's main highway, otherwise known as the Ring Road, that runs across the south-eastern edge.

We'd spent the night in the port town of Höfn, which sits between the ocean and the mountain range which cradles the country's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. From there we drove west, past lava fields, to the turnoff to a gravel road 8 kilometers long where we could get a better view of one of the glacier's arms. Then we returned to the highway and drove to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where first we took a 40-minute amphibious boat ride through huge glacier icebergs (and even got to munch on some glacier chunks) and then walked along the black-sand beaches that were littered with ice bits of all sizes and shapes.

Driving ever west, we passed geology that ranged from lichen-green-covered fields that resembled sodden cotton balls, to larger upturned cones the size of small houses, to more stark lava fields, to mountain cliffs fronting the ocean that looked as if someone had transplanted them from Monument Valley. We stopped at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, where a private museum told the story of a family whose dairy farm had been threatened by the 2010 eruption.

And we stopped at the site of Laufskalavarda, where travelers are invited to place a rock to help ensure a safe trip. Which seems to have worked because, finally, we arrived at the village of Vik unscathed. And after a short trip north to see the sun set over a natural rock arch, we settled in for the night.

If you do visit Iceland, and if you do decide to rent a car, making a trip to the southeastern coast is worth the effort (tours can be arranged in Reykjavik, too). It might be one of the most scenic bits of highway I've ever navigated.

Which, if nothing else, makes the question “why” a simple rhetorical query.

And I drank every single Icelandic drop

If you haven't checked out Rick Bonino's beer blog yet, you probably should. I say that in advance of sharing my own beer news: My recent trip to Iceland, which has my wife and I circumnavigating the island during a week-long driving tour, included a first-ever beer treat.

See that picture above? It is the beer that I ordered with my dinner two nights ago in the teeny port town of Hofn. We ate at our hotel, not necessarily because its was good — though, in the end, it was — but because this is the off season and every other restaurant save the local drive-in was closed. So we ate at the restaurant at the Hotel Hofn.

The beer was recommended by our server, a nice enough guy who also took our orders for a langoustine appetizer, soup and a Greek salad. But we washed them all down with beers, a lager for my wife and the regionally brewed Vatnajokull “Frozen in Time” ale for me. Click on the link to get the beer experts' opinions; all I can say is that it was tasty and cold and just what I needed to finish off a hard day's driving in Iceland (where the roads, while mostly in good shape, are so narrow they require constant concentration and so make all driving days hard).

I needed it so much I didn't even blink at paying 1,200 krona — which amounts to exactly $9.94. For a single bottle. Of beer. As I say, that's a first for me.

I'm not sure how you say Happy Hour in Icelandic. But I can imagine anytime something is discounted in this country, the emphasis is likely on the word Happy. 

Miranda Lambert books return trip

Blake Shelton sold out the joint a few weeks back. Now it's his wife's turn.

Country star Miranda Lambert will play the Spokane Arena on Feb. 12, joined by Justin Moore, RaeLynn and Jukebox Mafia. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 17 through TicketsWest. They'll set you back $39.75 or $54.75.

It will mark Lambert's first appearance in the region since a 2012 set at Watershed, the country music festival held at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. She last played the Inland Northwest way back in 2009, with a stop at the Coeur d'Alene Casino.

The tour is a stop on her Certified Platinum Tour, in support of her fifth studio album “Platinum.” Check out a video she made with a Spokane favorite, Carrie Underwood, here:

 

Climb a hill in Iceland, feel like you can make ‘Titanic’

Above: A look down the path from the summit of the long-dead Icelandic volcano Hverfjall. This view gives no indication just how steep the slope is.

Quick admission: I'm not in the best of shape. I stopped going to the gym regularly six months ago and since then have spent more time making excuses for why I'm not exercising than even thinking about working up a sweat.

But I'm not ready to give up on all aerobic activities just yet. Yesterday, while driving through east Iceland — part of our week-long tour of that diminutive but scenic European country — we stopped by one of the area's must-see sites. Hverfjall is what's called a tephra cone (or tuff ring) volcano, which was formed about 2,500 years ago. Sitting 420 meters (1,380 feet) high, the kilometer-wide cone can be seen from miles away.

Located northeast of Lake Mývatn, Hverfjall sits about a kilometer and a half off the highway. A parking lot at the base leads to two paths to the summit. One is more direct and is described as “hard.” The other, which is more circuitous, is considered easier.

I chose direct. And, yes, I had to stop twice and was breathing hard about halfway up. But I still made the top in about 15 minutes. And then I stood there, feeling like James Cameron, looking down at all the mortals far, far below.

OK, so they were all the other people who were also there to climb what is little more than a hillock. Still, I consider my Iceland hiking obligation paid in full. King of the wooorrrlllddd!

Iceland can surprise even the most jaded traveler

Above: October is maybe Iceland's rainiest month. So rainbows are common, Yet they seem to come out at the most unexpected moments. We saw this one after driving down an unpaved section of Iceland's Ring Road toward the eastern seashore.

If you're reasonably well-traveled — say, for example, you've visited nearly 40 countries in five continents — then it's reasonable to expect that only someplace special is going to impress you. We're now in our fifth day in Iceland, and so far we've liked what we've seen. The modern feel of the capital Reykjavik, the barren sweep of the volcanic plains as you drive north and east, snow-covered peaks that cut into the sky like foam-covered saw blades, dormant volcanoes that resemble massive cones made of black sand, the occasional peek of a rainbow as it surprises you around a bend, thundering waterfalls around virtually every corner, boiling mud springs and steam vents that resemble plumes of wood smoke, flocks of sheep that fleck the hillsides and (periodically and without warning) scuttle across the highway … and so on.

But to be honest, until now Iceland hasn't shown us anything that, say, we haven't seen in Sisters, Ore., or Milford Sound, New Zealand, or the Scottish Highlands or the Big Island of Hawaii or the Columbia Gorge or the national parks at Yellowstone and Glacier or the falls known as Iguazu that rush through the intersection of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Thing is, Iceland has all those … and more.

It was that more that we got a taste of today, during our drive from the east Iceland town of Egilsstadir to the southeastern seaside village of Höfn. First we drove over a mountain pass, which though still part of the island's main Highway I — also known as the Ring Road — is unpaved for the better part of 40 kilometers.

Once past the peak, we saw our first sun of the day (and our second rainbow of the trip). Then we drove past our first black-sand beaches, the waves whipped by winds that almost blew us off our feet. Up the road, we passed stark mountainsides fronting the Atlantic and contrasting the gray ocean with tons of gray, black and green. And, finally, as we rounded a point and came within sight of Höfn — a collection of fragile box-like buildings set next to a small harbor — we could see in the distance not one, not two or even three but four different spurs of the massive glacier Vatnajökull that covers much of south-central Iceland.

Tomorrow we will try to drive even closer. For now, though, I'm just going to sit here and stare.

And feel, yes, impressed.

Iceland’s elves don’t work cheap

Above: Reykjavik, Iceland, is not an inexpensive place to visit.

Iceland is a country of myths. One study claims that some 50 percent of Icelanders believe in elves. And in the city of Egilsstadir, which is set in east Iceland on the banks of the glacial lake Lagarflojt, people claim to have seen the Lagarflojt Wyrm — a kind of Loch Ness monster, sightings of which date back to as early as 1345.

Seriously, though, on our stay so far in Iceland, we've seen two Icelandic myths proven false.

One, Iceland isn't cold. The story here is that most people get Iceland mixed up with Greenland. And, yes, Greenland is mostly snow covered, which isn't exactly green, and Iceland is a geothermic paradise that boasts many colors, including white. But while Greenland is certainly cold, so is Iceland. Especially during the winter. It's only October, and nothing at ground level is yet frozen, but temperatures in the high 30s feel mighty cold when they're accompanied by rain and 20- and 30-mph winds. So if you're planning on visiting Iceland, brings some fleece. And a rain shell. And a wool hat. And gloves.

Two, following the 2008 recession, which bankrupted the country's three largest banks, prices dropped, giving tourists a good deal. And that may be so. If it is, then I have no idea how anyone but a 1-percenter paid for anything here. We spent two days in the capital, Reykjavik, then drove northeast to spend the night in Akureyri and then today to Egilsstadir, and we've basically given up eating more than once a day in restaurants. We ate at a place last night in Akureyri mentioned in guidebooks (Strikid) and at a local eatery tonight (Salt), and both my wife and I ordered sparingly: Fish for her and a burger for me last night, burgers and sodas for both of us tonight. And our bill for tonight? Almost $42. For burgers, fries and sodas.

So come to Iceland, definitely. The outdoor activities, from hiking to fishing and camping, are worth it. But especially during the winter, bring as much clothing with you as you can stuff in a suitcase. And make sure your credit cards are in good shape. Because you're going to need some ready cash.

Those elves don't work cheap.

There’s a word for some ‘traditional’ dishes

Every culture has dishes that offer a problematic appeal to the human palate. In the U.S., you might put Rocky Mountains oysters on the list. Or rattlesnake. Chef Andrew Zimmern has built a whole career out of eating such things as cow placenta, bull penis and salted tuna sperm.

Iceland, for its part, has built a whole tourist industry around serving a few such dishes. Atop the list would be hákarl, the raw, fermented shark (some would say) delicacy that famously made Gordon Ramsey vomit. You can find it on the menu of virtually any Icelandic restaurant that bills itself as an outlet for traditional Icelandic fare.

So … we stopped into one of those kinds of restaurants earlier today during our stay in Reykjavik, called Prir Frakkar (which Eyewitness Travel guide translates as Three Overcoats). And there it was, hákarl. And I debated for five seconds before deciding … no freaking way. Likewise, we passed on horse tenderloin, whale steak and panfried guillemot (if we can't recognize it, we tend to avoid it). But we did opt for another local dish, which was identified as “reyktur Lundi með sinnepssósu, or smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce.

I mean, a puffin is a bird (as, we later discovered, is a guillemot). How bad can a bird taste? That's a photo of the dish up above there as it arrived at our table.

Well, some people are adventurous. Others have a taste for the exotic. My wife ordered “Heilsteikt Rauðsprettuflök með rækjum 'gratin,' ” which is panfried fillet of plaice with shrimp “gratin,“ without even knowing that plaice is a white flatfish. And even though the sauce made the whole thing a little rich, she did a good job of eating over half.

I ate the other half, along with a bowl of creamy mushroom soup and several pieces of bread. Why? To get the taste of smoked puffin out of my mouth, actually. That stuff tastes like worm sushi.

So glad I passed on the shark.

The film fan finds a home in Rejkjavik

No matter where I go, I seem to be haunted by film. I write this in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where I am on a week-long stay with my wife. This country, which is just slightly smaller than the state of Ohio, claims a population — about 320,000 — that is less than Spokane County. Yet it boasts a film festival that is as varied as it is impressive.

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 a.m. Sunday morning. And after busing from Keflavik Airport to the capital, we dropped our bags off at our hotel (the Hotel Holt), and walked around. Reykjavik is relatively small and, not unlike Spokane, has a central area that each to navigate on foot. (The above photo is my attempt to show just how different the Icelandic language is to English.)

In the late afternoon, we headed to the Bio Paradis theater where, with no problem at all, we were able to see three documentary features on the final day of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. “Evaporating Borders,” which explores the immigration problem facing Cyprus (but that has implications for the entire world). “Ballet Boys,” which explores the world of youth ballet in Oslo, Norway. And “Waiting for August,” a study of family life in contemporary Romania.

And that's how we spent our first day in Reykjavik. No film festival today. Guess we'll have to hit a few museums.

Wonder if we can find one devoted to movies?

‘The Equalizer’ is a tad bit … too, too much

I like to say that I sit through movies so that others don't have to. And I've been doing it professionally since 1984. Last week I sat through “The Equalizer,” which I … well, let me explain in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1970, the average price of a U.S. movie ticket was $1.55. Today, that price is closer to $8.15, some five times more expensive.

Of course, ticket prices aren’t the only thing about movies that have grown. Budgets have, also. And while the size of theaters has decreased, and then increased, depending on industry trends, the use of special effects has grown perhaps most of all. Furthermore, the tendency for CGI clutter mirrors the very way movies unfold their plots.

Take “The Equalizer,” Antoine Fuqua’s latest big-screen teaming with two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington. It has its roots in a series that hit American television nearly 30 years ago. Starring Edward Woodward, an actor as British as Earl Grey tea, TV’s “The Equalizer” focused on Robert McCall, a former intelligence – likely CIA – agent. Similar to many retirees, Woodward’s McCall took the odd job here and there, though with a difference: He used his special skills, and a variety of weapons when needed, to “help” out often powerless individuals – abused wives, for example. And he had a quiet kind of force that made bad guys listen.

Boasting Washington in the lead, Fuqua’s version of “The Equalizer” plays like a pilot for a potential series reboot. This new McCall works days at a Home Depot-type business, joking with customers, mentoring a young coworker, and skillfully dodging queries about his past. We see that his sparely furnished apartment is filled with books belonging to the Modern Library and that, often unable to sleep, he spends nights at a diner straight out of a Production Design 101 class, drinking tea and reading, among other novels, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It is here, in this diner that resembles an Edward Hopper painting, that McCall meets Teri (real name Alina), a teenage streetwalker played by Chloe Grace Moretz. It is through Teri that McCall gets his first glimpse of the Russian-speaking mobsters who control her. And it is about this time that McCall begins feeling an old pull, one that he apparently had promised his recently deceased wife he would fight. That pull concerns his tendency to draw upon his agency experience to set the world right. Problem is, that pull inevitably results in violence.

For the first half hour of “The Equalizer,” Fuqua – whose 2001 film “Training Day” won Washington his second Oscar – gives us a film that works as a slow, stylistic reveal. Even when that reveal comes, the style continues – slo-mo shots mingled with close-ups, effective use of shadows, dark colors and gimmickry involving McCall’s stopwatch.

But then, unaccountably, McCall transforms into a combination Jason Bourne and Frank Castle – aka “The Punisher” – whose expertise transforms his warehouse workplace into a tool-laden killing field. And unlike Woodward’s McCall, who might have used a corkscrew to open a good claret, Washington’s character wields the implement in ways that would make even Charles Manson blush.

All things considered, Fuqua’s “Equalizer” might not be bigger. But more brutal, more bloody? Mmmmm, about five times as much.

From myth to truth: Native American Film Festival

From almost the beginning of the U.S. film industry, mainstream America has been portraying — in most cases inventing portrayals — of its indigenous population. In recent years, though, artists representing that population — painters, photographers, poets, novelists and filmmakers — have been reworking their images. And, in the process, searching for something much closer to a truth.

That's likely what you can expect to find Oct. 11 at Sandpoint's Panida Theater when the Idaho Mythweaver will present its American Indian Film Festival. The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will include four films written and directed by native filmmakers: ”Injunuity,” “Indian Relay,” “Grab” and the documentary feature “This May Be the Last Time.”

In his review for Variety, film critic Guy Lodge wrote this about “This May Be the Last Time”: “An Oklahoma-based son of the Seminole tribe himself, (filmmaker Sterlin) Harjo begins by matter-of-factly relating the story of his grandfather’s mysterious death in 1962 — a sincere pretext for a probing examination of the singular-sounding spiritual music that nursed his family through their grief.” 

Tickets to the four-film program run $12 and are available in advance online, at various locations around Sandpoint and at the door. 

Nothing Trivial about this game of Pursuit

Way back when, during the years my daughter would come home from New York for the Christmas holidays, our house would typically be the site of a Trivial Pursuit tournament. Most time it would be parents against college-age students, and often the students — flush with all the new information their professors were attempting to cram into their heads — would lose.

The quickness of youth can't always handle the facility of experience.

Anyway, trivia has always been a good game to play, especially for those of us who know a little about a lot but a lot about very little (with the exception, in my case maybe, of movies). And so I'm particularly interested in the Spokane Trivia Championship, which will be held at 7 on Thursday at the Bing Crosby Theater.

Sponsored by the Spokane Public Library Foundation, the event costs $12 (with ages 12 and under admitted free), and will be emceed by Mark Robbins. For further information, click here.

BTW, my own Trivial Pursuit days are long over. When you can't pull up the name of Akira … mmm, Akira … mmm, that famous Japanese filmmaker, Akira … Kurosawa, yeah, yeah, Kurosawa .. on your first try, the game is clearly up.

Friday’s openings: Get Gone (Girl) or be Left Behind

From the religious to the satanic, comic to mysterious, the week's movies offer a range of experiences. Some might even be worth seeing. The week's openings are as follows:

“Left Behind”: Nicolas Cage plays a man who, when his wife and child mysteriously disappear, tries to discover what happened — and why. Based on the religious novels. Warning: Don't text while driving. 

“Annabelle”: A family gets haunted by a vintage doll possessed by … satan? Or is it … Chucky?

“Hector and the Search for Happiness”: Simon Pegg plays a psychiatrist who embarks on a round-the-world trip to see what makes people happy. Hint: It's not a PS4.

“Gone Girl”: David Fincher directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel, which tells the story of a man (Ben Affleck) who is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). And, no, he does not play in the NFL.

“Love Is Strange”: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play an aging couple who, when one loses his teaching job, are forced to live with family members until their finances get settled. Remember what they say about friends, family and visits that last longer than three days.

The Magic Lantern is opening nothing new, but “The Trip to Italy,” “Alive Inside,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight” continue.

Head to Greenbluff for some tasty baked treats

Even if it weren't clear that the autumnal equinox has passed, it would still be obvious that fall is here. You can feel it in the air. And the fall season means … time to visit Green Bluff.

My wife and I drove north on Sunday afternoon, and we stopped by High Country Orchards. We passed on the espresso, the gifts and the antiques, which remind me of your friendly Cracker Barrel. We even passed on the scones pictured above. But we did pick up some fruit, a few peaches and apples, and I just couldn't resist buying a peach pie — which we consumed with some frozen yogurt later after dinner.

So while the weather holds, we'll be heading back north. And maybe next time? I'll try one of those huckleberry scones.

Luna beignets are a small slice of New Orleans

Anyone who has ever visited New Orleans knows about the Cafe Du Monde. It's always been a tourist haunt, and the crowds can be irritating, but I remember spending a pleasant afternoon there a decade and a half ago eating beignets, drinking cafe au lait and reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Times have changed. The newspaper is a shadow of its former self. And I haven't been able to score a table, much less a table for one, my last two visits. But I bought my beignets to go. Yes, they will shorten my life, but I can't resist them.

Which is why when my wife, our friends Gerry and Layne and I ate brunch at Luna on Sunday, I had to — had to, I say — order their beignets as an appetizer. And, yes, our regular meals were delicious — a range of the Lucca Salad (eggs and bacon on a bed of greens), Eggs Florentine (poached eggs on English muffins with tomato and Hollandaise sauce), a butternut squash soup and a special chorizo-egg filled burrito.

But the beignets were heavenly. A bit small, about the size and shape of doughnut holes. But prepared just right, with whipped cream (not necessary), what I remember as raspberry jam (appreciated) and powdered sugar (obligatory).

Made me think I was back in New Orleans. Now if I can only find a place in Spokane that serves muffulettas like Central Grocery.

Famed Santa Fe artist comes to Spokane

Dodson's Jewelers in downtown Spokane is hosting a show opening tonight featuring noted Santa Fe, New Mexico artist Estella Loretto.

Loretto, who grew up in New Mexico's Jemez pueblo, spent some time in Spokane during the 1980s, teaching Southwestern cooking and pottery. Now, she has larger, monumental bronze sculptures on display across the country, including Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Indian, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Native American Center in Niagara Falls, New York, and the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. Her most famous sculpture, of the only Native American saint, Blessed Kateri, stands outside the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In addition to her large sculptures, she also paints, and makes masks and jewelry.

She is returning to Spokane for the first time in more than two decades to attend the opening reception of her show tonight at Dodson's, 516 W. Riverside Ave. The reception will run from 5 to 8 p.m., and the Loretto show will continue through October.

Interested in learning more? Visit Loretto's website here.

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