Monday, September 29, 2014

9 Cool Things to Know About Iceland

1. Geyser comes from the Icelandic word Geysir, meaning hot spring. That, in turn, comes from the Old Norse Geysa, meaning to rush forth.

2. Iceland is considered among the Top 10 happiest countries in the world. What's not to like? 

3. That said, Iceland could be said to be splitting apart. The country runs along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, meaning, geographically, it includes parts of both the European and North American continental plates. This phenomenon can be best seen at Þingvellir National Park, the site of Iceland's first parliament (930 AD--the world's oldest continuously-running parliament) and plenty of fissures unrelated to politics.

4.Reykjavik played host to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. The meeting is considered by historians as the first thaw of the Cold War....

5. ...only adding to Iceland's reputation as the most peaceful country in the world.

6. It's also one of the most progressive in political terms. Iceland had the world's first directly-elected female head of state (1980) and the world's first openly gay head of state (2009).

7. If you clicked on the links above, you'll notice the names of both female leaders end in dóttir.  This is part of the old Nordic tradition of using patronymic names. In Iceland, surnames are not passed down from generation to generation. Instead, the suffix sson or dóttir (daughter) is added to the father's first name to create a new last name. 

8. Because people are so often referred to by their first names (even in places like Parliament and the phone book), Iceland has an officially approved list of names. Given names must be "capable of having Icelandic grammatical endings" and may not "conflict with the linguistic structure of Iceland". If a name contains a letter that doesn't not exist in the Icelandic alphabet (like C, for example), said name is verboten.

9. Iceland has 3,088 miles of coastline.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Images of Iceland

Simply put, Iceland is one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I have visited...and I have been to more than 50. It's raw, it's rugged and it's dramatic. The next several blog posts will be filled with images of scenic wonders (waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, craters and pseudo-craters); livestock (sheep and horses); and village scenes that seem to come straight out of the imagination. Oh, and did I mention the Northern Lights?

The Ring Road circles the island of Iceland, traveling through countryside and fjords,and past countless waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes. In all, it's more than 800 miles long.

Dettifoss in Northeastern Iceland is consideredthe most powerful waterfall in Europe.

Ho hum, another waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is in Southern Iceland. You can actually walk behind it!

Pseudocraters around Lake Myvatn in Northern Iceland.

Where else can you see pseudocraters? Mars.

Hverfell is an actual crater estimated to be 2,800-years-old. Located near Lake Myvatn, it's nearly 460 feet deep and more than half a mile around. Hverfell is one of Iceland’s most symmetrical volcanic explosion craters, and one of the largest of its kind in the world. I climbed to the top and looked around inside.

Vatnajökull National Park is home to the largest glacier outside of the polar regions. Arrive in Skaftafell and book a tour to walk on the glacier...or just amble around it. Skaftafell is four hours east of Reykjavik.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is actually the result of global warming (yes, Virginia, it exists). Located near Vatnajökull  this deep lake is filled with icebergs appearing to be blue. You can take a boat trip around the ice, or opt to get closer via a Zodiac.

These last two shots are designed to tease you into coming back for more. Djúpivogur is a charming town in the Eastern fjord region, and the place where I found my Monopoly game (and a designer leather dress and a reindeer bracelet). 

Below, one of many images of the Northern Lights, as seen around Lake Myvatn on the night of major solar flare activity. Note--this picture was taken with a decent, but ordinary, manual Nikon camera. No tripod was used.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two Handy Travel Accessories

On every long-distance road trip, I take the opportunity to test-drive new travel products. Here in Iceland, I donned a pair of thick thermal socks and a lightweight eye mask/head cushion (not at the same time) in service of my lovely readers.

Who hasn't had an issue with an eye mask? Some let too much light in, while others slip to the neck and attempt to strangle you in the middle of the night. On the other hand, some are far too tight and constrict blood flow to the skull. Enter The Travel Halo. Designed by an angel, a military veteran, the halo can make an airplane a more heavenly sleeping environment. The Travel Halo is fashioned with lightweight, breathable fabric and has a flap to fully cover the eyes. Not only that, it's a travel pillow of sorts. Two wee cushions sewn inside the back of the band cradle your head. I do wish the designer allowed those petite pillows to be adjusted, though On some heads (like mine), they will not sit quite right. The basics--$29 at

In the damp, chilly climate that characterizes Iceland this time of year (heck, most of the year), I found my Heat Holders thermal socks quite handy...or rather, footy. They claim to be the warmest socks ever, seven times warmer than your average darned pair, and three times better than any other thermal sock on the market. I can't vouch for those claims, but Heat Holders kept my tootsies warm throughout my Icelandic adventures. The basics--$15.99 at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Gluten-Free Goodies for the Road

While traveling in Iceland for two weeks, I decided to test several of the newer gluten-free nibbles on the market. My product testing had me searching for healthy, natural products. I am tired of LARA bars, have never been a fan of KIND bars, and altogether find too many gluten-free bars filled with sugar, carbohydrates, and questionable ingredients.

Sadly, the new gluten-free LUNA protein bar fits that description. Basically a chocolate candy bar, the ingredients are: Soy protein isolate, organic cane syrup, organic dried cane syrup, palm kernel oil, inulin (chicory extract), cocoa, non-organic dried cane syrup, macadamia nut butter, natural flavors (whatever that means), whey protein concentrate, chocolate, organic rice flour, salt, soy lecithin, cocoa butter, and both organic alkalized cocoa and organic vanilla extract and alkalized cocoa and vanilla extract, plus a bunch of added minerals. Whew. Nearly a score of ingredients. Plus, why bother with organics when you are also going to add in the (cheaper) non-organic version of the same ingredient? Seems like a bit of a bait and switch to me. This bar may taste good, but I doubt it's very good for you. That said, the new LUNA protein lip balm kept my lips moist and juicy throughout my trip.
Grades: LUNA Bar-D LUNA Balm A-

When I looked for bar alternatives, I was seeking out high-protein products. Aside from the LUNA line, I tried various versions of Caveman Cookies, a paleo, all-natural product with no dairy and no gluten. There are six flavors, ranging from Mayan--chocolate, chili and chia--to New World--pumpkin, maple and cranberry. The cookies have between four and eight ingredients, depending on the flavor, and all are products you can recognize (honey, various nuts, raisins, coconut spices, and dried fruits). They are soft, yummy, not terribly sweet, and about 60-70 calories a cookie. One is not going to fill you up, but it will give you a little energy spike during a long day of touring. Grade: A-

The last product I will review here is the Santa Barbara Bar. Now, this one is made with gluten-free oats, and I know that some debate whether that is an oxymoron. However, I do fine with Trader Joe's GF Oatmeal, and indeed, I didn't react to the Santa Barbara Bar. The bar is cloyingly sweet, although tasty and chewy. I tried the coconut almond version. The ingredients are almonds, brown rice syrup, whey crisps ( whey protein concentrate and rice flour), GF oats, raisins, pumpkin seeds , cashews, brown rice syrup solids, chicory fiber, honey, salt, chia seeds, sunflower lecithin, and GF oat flour. Again, that's a number of ingredients, but most of them seem relatively healthy. Grade: B

Next up: Gluten-free beef jerky and other snack items.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Sharing Economy: Taxing Matters for Airbnb

After a thorny week in the weeds studying up on legal and taxation issues surrounding Airbnb and its ilk,
I took my research to WTOP Radio in Washington, DC, where I did an lengthy interview with reporter Rachel Nania. In addition to the radio segment, Rachel wrote the story below based on our joint reporting efforts.

I will continue to report on these complicated matters, as travelers can expect that new regulations regarding sharing economy companies will be enacted by many cities and/or states in the months to come. 

(I have cut a few lines in the interest of length) 

Listing Your House or Apartment on Airbnb? Know the Rules

It seemed like a no-brainer. For one night in Paris, I could pay $300 a night for myself and four friends to stay in a "classic French apartment" -- a tiny, yet charming, unit, complete with crown molding and floor-to-ceiling windows -- just steps from the Notre Dame. The other option was to book two hotel rooms, each $300 a night, in an area of the city that's much farther from the charming cafés we planned to patrol for croissants, coffees and carafes of wine. Lodging marketplaces such as Airbnb, the website I used to plan a recent trip to France, are popular sites for travelers across the globe. In the six years since Airbnb launched, more than 17 million people have booked accommodations through the site, which serves more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.

Travel expert Laura Powell says the success of the so-called sharing economy, of which Airbnb is a part, is attributable to a few things -- beginning with the bill. "These are ways to stay in places for less," says Powell of The Daily Suitcase. "Another appeal is that you go to cities, or places, and you feel like you are actually living there. You're staying in neighborhoods that might not have hotels available. You're living in buildings or residences where you get a taste of what it's actually like to live somewhere."

Travelers aren't the only ones embracing this approach to travel. More than 800,000 people list their residences for rent on Airbnb -- including more than 1,000 rooms, apartments or homes in D.C.
With single rooms ranging from $75 a night to renovated townhomes that cost more $600 a night, listing a place on Airbnb is a great way to bring in a little extra cash. But before you start writing the house rules for your family-friendly two-bedroom condo, you should be aware of the city's rules.

Permission to List? Renters and Condo Owners Face Obstacles

If you want to lease an apartment or condo in the District, you'll need to check with your property manager first.  "In all likelihood, you will be in violation of your lease, and if you are, and the owner of the property finds out because your neighbors are complaining because it seems like people are running in and out of your apartment, you could very well be booted out of your apartment," Powell says.
Even if you own a condo, you'll need approval from the board or managing body before you hand over the keys to paying visitors -- even if it's just for a weekend. Sam Le Blanc, president of Crescent Property Management LLC,  most of which prohibit short-term leasing, says--"So from our perspective, [renting via Airbnb or other sites] is not allowed."  "I think it really boils down to what kind of community people want to live in. And most of our communities, they're pretty loud and clear that they don't want a lot of traffic in and out. It does create wear-and-tear in the building, and you don't know who is in the building so it does create some security issues." Powell says anyone can list a place for rent on Airbnb (and many do), but there could be implications. "You're taking a lot more risk in your hands if you try to do this under the radar in an apartment or a condo situation," she says. "D.C. kind of falls under this whole new paradigm that cities are looking at -- big cities, where most of the housing stock is apartments and condos." That's not to say listing a single-family house for short-term rent is a walk in the park, though.

Renting Your House: It's a Business

Renting your home through companies and marketplaces is less of an issue for owners of single-family houses, but there are still requirements. (The same goes for condo owners and renters who have approval to list their units.) The first is to obtain a license from the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "Renting a property is a business activity in the District of Columbia, which means you need a business license to do it," says Matt Orlins, legislative and public affairs officer at the DCRA. "There are not special rules for Airbnb. If you wish to rent your property, everyone follows the same rules."Most people can apply for a license from the DCRA online. The cost associated with the license varies, but Eric Rodgers, business and professional licensing administration administrator for DCRA, says it's no more than $500 for the largest license.

Some areas in the District are not zoned for business, though, and so homeowners in those areas can't get a license to host renters. Orlins says the DCRA has seen an increase in the number of rental licenses issued in recent years, but can't attribute the uptick to the sharing economy. "The population in D.C. is growing -- we've seen estimates of over 1,000 residents a month," he says. "Those folks are going to need a place to live, so you may be seeing more rentals as a result of a population increase, versus services like Airbnb."

Enforcing the Rules: How It's Changing

The thing is, not every renter on Airbnb has a property manager's approval, a business license or zoning rights. What does that mean? Orlins says the DCRA's regulatory investigations unit responds to complaints or reports, and some, but not all, of the unit's cases have been based on ads on Airbnb.
"Inspections or investigations based on reports of illegal rentals are going to be time-consuming in terms of the amount of time the investigators need to put in, and in terms of putting a case together, so they don't always lend themselves to quick resolutions," Orlins says. But this all could change as cities and Airbnb work together to enact rules that are easier for residents to follow. San Francisco and Portland are leading the pack, working on laws to make the previously underground business more transparent.

Powell says additional fees, passed on to travelers, could be next. Hotel associations are upset with Airbnb and other sites, she says, because the new competition isn't required to pay occupancy taxes, a fee placed on hotel guests that ranges from 10 to 15 percent. "That's a significant amount of money when you add that up over a number of nights," Powell says. "And if you're a consumer, looking for a place to stay, wouldn't you rather save that 15 percent?" She says many city revenue departments are looking into the issue. "I think you're going to see a lot of other cities, including Washington, D.C. ... possibly forcing Airbnb to add the hotel occupancy tax to the rates, and then collect and report it." (LP: This is because Airbnb, unlike a, actually collects revenues on behalf of their clients--the rental properties). 

Will all these rules and regulations cause the sharing economy to lose its appeal? Powell says it's a double-edged sword. On one end, regulations give more legitimacy to room and home exchanges, and "it also gives the consumer a place to go if they have problems." On the other, the uptick in prices could make it less of a deal for consumers. Whether rules and taxes are enforced, Powell says she expects changes to have little impact on the sharing economy's main demographic. "For people under 30, this is the way they travel now. They are coming of age in the sharing economy, so companies like Airbnb and Uber are likely to continue to thrive, regardless of regulations."

© 2014 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Baltimore in Alaska

Images: Baltimore.Org

My lengthy feature story on Baltimore hits seat pockets everywhere today--or at least the seat pockets of Alaska Airlines travelers. Here's the link to the full story on Charm City in Alaska Airlines Magazine. You'll find the piece from page 52-59. Let me know what you think. Hope it doesn't leave you feeling crabby. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

President Obama Heads To Estonia...

...following in my footsteps.

Do you know where Estonia is? You likely might after this weekend, when President Barack Obama stops by the tiny Baltic nation. I visited Estonia a year ago, so I guess I'm a trendsetter. At any rate, given that I have been in the weeds lately researching the tax implications of AirBnB for WTOP Radio in DC (a subject too complicated for a pithy post,),  I am going to exercise my prerogative to revisit a past post.. For more, take a listen to my 10-minute segment on Estonia that aired on Around the World Radio.  It's hanging in the site's archives, the  last segment of the June 6, 2013 show.  Also, you can discover more at
Meantime, a colleague who traveled there with me wrote a terrific piece of poetic prose at I have excerpted part of the story here, and added my own pictures. Marc Kristal precisely echoes my feelings about traveling back to places after they have changed from a former state of being.  Not only that, his coverage of Tallinn is spot-on. 
In addition to the sites Marc mentions below, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum for Puppet Arts. It illustrates the rich history of puppet theater in Estonia, which, ironically, was especially prolific when the Baltic nation was a puppet of the Soviet Union. 

If you have no memory of what life was like in the Eastern Bloc prior to 1991, then freedom there is your reality, and you can be as mystified by those haunted by the ghosts of the Soviet years. Thus it can be invaluable, when visiting places where, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t past, to be made aware of significant recent history: the better to understand what shaped the seemingly eternal everyday-ness of the place you’re experiencing, and to perceive that you are in fact in a kind of chrysalis, a city or country emerging from a previous state of being into a new condition traced by, but separate from (hopefully, someday), the dark past.
A recent visit to Estonia and Lithuania brought this home to me sharply, the former especially, as Tallinn, Estonia’s enchanting capital, is in many ways a typically ‘modern’ European city – which is to say that it can comfortably put forward both the historic and contemporary. Tallinn’s Old Town, comprised of upper and lower districts, began life in the early 13th century and is today a picturesque mélange of Danish, German and (to a lesser degree) Russian influences; from my base at the Hotel Telegraaf, a chic hostelry installed in the city’s old telegraph building, it was a pleasurable stroll to the district’s greatest hits: the best-preserved medieval town hall (dating from 1404) in Europe; on Town Hall Square, the oldest continuously-operating pharmacy (dating from 1422) in Europe (be sure to check the expiration date on your prescription of Eye of Newt); and   handsome churches.  
Seaplane Harbour Museum
At the same time, contemporary Tallinn is palpably present, in cultural attractions such as the design-forward Kumu Art Museum (in Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Park) and the superlative fun-for-all-ages Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. It is contained within what is surely one of the great interior spaces to be found in the Baltics, a three-domed concrete-shell airplane hangar dating from the early 20th century. The Rotermann Quarter, a former industrial district near the waterfront, has been reinvented via the alchemy of that ubiquitous urban revitalization model, an interleaving of historical and contemporary architecture, as a hip business, residential and leisure-time destination. 
Yet the years between the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1944 and 20 August 1991, when the nation declared its independence, make themselves felt in large ways and small. Nowhere is this more transparent than at the KGB Museum atop the Hotel Viru, a 23-story modernist pile built by the USSR’s Intourist agency to attract foreign customers (and currency). It opened in 1972.
Former KGB Headquarters
Radio Room in Hotel Viru
The museum, which debuted in January of 2011 and has drawn some 75,000 visitors to its relatively cramped quarters, is difficult to characterize, in large measure because there’s not much to it. Overlooking the former headquarters of the KGB in Tallinn, the outpost occupies the hotel’s top floor. It remains unreachable by elevator, as was the case during the Soviet years, when it officially didn’t exist (nosy questioners were told floor 23 held ‘technical rooms’. There are displays of vintage photographs and documents, an office with telephones and technology that, though only four decades old, own a primitiveness worthy of the Flintstones, and a KGB ‘radio room,’ used for sending messages and eavesdropping on guests. The place exerts a weird fascination, which derives (for me at any rate) from its almost perfect conformity to a 1950s Hollywood-style laff riot vision of utter Commie incompetence – the kind of comedy in which the Red agents are depicted as bumbling,  bushy-browed buffoons booming out party platitudes but all too susceptible to Jack Daniel’s, Chiclets, and other classy American blandishments.
The mirthful mood is abetted by my group’s tour guide, Jana, a fast-talking, high-energy gamine in a red warm-up jacket with the museum’s logo emblazoned on its back, who calls to mind a blond, pixie-cut version of the impish Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, and sustains a non-stop monologue that is at once richly informative, deeply sad, and laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Jana is the KGB Museum, as she animatedly fills its dreary rooms and corridors with the bizarre up-is-down world of Estonia under the pathetic, vicious Soviet thumb.
What do we learn? That the Viru, Tallinn’s first skyscraper and most prestigious hotel, required a mere three years to construct (using Finnish labor), as opposed to the decade or more it typically took the unmotivated local talent to finish a comparable job. That, out of 460 rooms, 60 were bugged – the joke was that the Viru was built from “micro-concrete – 50 percent concrete, 50 percent microphones.” That only the best rooms, the ones with views, were wired, and that guests such as journalists, who were most likely to divulge useful information, received the same bugged accommodations over and over again. That the KGB went so far as to insert microphones into butter plates in the dining room (while cautioning the waiters never to put them in the dishwasher).

We learn as well that the spy agency’s omnipresence, which it took great pains to conceal, was an open secret to one and all. Mischievous guests would often write ‘KGB’ in the elevators where the button for the 23rd floor would have been, and a museum visitor who’d been at the Viru pre-1991 told of standing in his wiretapped bathroom and loudly complaining of a lack of toilet paper – after which a bellman immediately showed up with a fresh roll.
To work in such a place was to be more than a prisoner in name. Jana shows us a trick purse that, when opened, set off a paint bomb: the idea was that a hotel employee who might find a lost wallet and try to secure some foreign currency would be busted by the colorful splatter. That this was no laughing matter is evident from the story Jana tells of two waiters. One who was caught drunk on the job was sent to work in the hotel’s storeroom for three months. Another, found with a pocket full of Finnish money, was sent to jail.

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J,The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and numerous other publications. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011). Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.