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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Curious Georgia: Nine Things to Know

To clarify before we count down, we are talking Georgia of Eastern Europe/west of Russia--not south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

1. Why is Georgia called Georgia? There are three theories.

--St. George is the patron saint in these parts.
--Some accounts I see online says it comes from the Perisan word gurj ...meaning wolf.
--I tend to believe my lovely guide, Tamara Natenadze, who says it comes from the Greek georgios, meaning land of agricultural or cultivation. She says Greeks came to the area in the first century before Christ and were surprised to find such an advanced culture....

2. ....which included wine production. Georgia has an uninterrupted 8,000-year history of grape cultivation, making it the oldest wine-producing region in the world. About 535 varieties of grapes are grown here.

3. Georgians, by the by, called themselves 'Kartvelebi'...derived from the pagan god Kartlos, said to be the father of all Georgians.

4. King of Queens: King Tamar was a woman who ruled Georgia during its medieval Golden Age.

5. More Girl Power, Georgia-Style: St. Nino brought Christianity to the region in 330 AD after wandering here from Cappadoccia.

6. The town where Joseph Stalin was born, and where a self-aggrandizing museum to the tyrannical dictator is located (opening date--1957), is called...appropriately... Gori.

7. Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the highest village in Europe, located 7,218 feet above sea level.

8. Georgian Cultures: They eat lots of yogurt here, called matsoni. In places, it is made with the milk of water buffalo.

9. Dannon's 1977 ad featuring Georgian centenarians was the first US commercial shot in the former Soviet Union. It put both Georgia and yogurt on the map....although I highly doubt locals opt for the commercial brand.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Let's Talk Live About Airbnb

I chatted about Airbnb, taxes and regulation (oooh, sexy) on today's Let's Talk Live in Washington, DC. Below is the promo and here is the clip of the segment. Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 6, 2014

10 Images of Iceland

It's a busy week of media appearances. Today, I head over to WJLA-TV studios to do a Let's Talk Live segment about Airbnb. On Thursday, I report on Iceland for Around the World Radio in California. In the interim, I need to polish off an article about private schools for The Washington Post. Whew. 

If you aren't quite as busy, feel free to peruse these pictures 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 Nikon Cool Pix L-820--not a fancy camera. No tripod was used.

For more information on Iceland, go to www.visiticeland.com.

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.

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 HomeAway.com, 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.