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Iceland: Close by, but Worlds Away

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

For a long time, Iceland had been on my travel bucket list. When I finally made it there, it surprised me how accessible it is from the East Coast. While the island country is close to the Arctic Circle, it's not as remote as it seems. I took a direct flight from Boston and arrived in Reykjavik in less time than it takes me to fly to California. Whether you're in the country for just a few days or a longer stretch of time, guided tours are a popular option, especially for first-time visitors. Like most people, I was based in the capital city, Reykjavik, and headed out for daytrips to some of the countryís most dramatic sites, including spectacular hot springs, glaciers, lava fields, volcanoes and waterfalls. The Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle route are usually at the top of visitors' itineraries, including mine. I was especially excited to soak in the Blue Lagoon after hearing about it from friends. Many people visit between September and April to chase after the northern lights, but that wasn't my goal on this trip.

Reykjavik has a population of about 120,000. While that’s relatively small as far as capitals go, it seems large when you consider that Iceland’s total population hovers around 340,000. The cosmopolitan city is easily walkable, with many attractions clustered together. Laugavegur is the city is main street for restaurants, bars and shops, while a walk along the waterfront offers great views. Look into purchasing a Reykjavik City Card, which gives you access to a great selection of museums and galleries, unlimited bus travel, and access to the city’s thermal-fed public swimming pools. I visited one of the city pools and it was fun to mingle with locals whose daily swims and soaks are part of their routine schedule. A visit to the Hallgrimskirkja church is a must. You wonít need directions to find it; its tall tower can be spied from almost anywhere in the city. The distinctive design was inspired by the shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock. Make sure to go to the top of the tower for amazing views. In front of the church, you’ll see people posing for group photos or taking selfies by the Leif Erikson statue that pays homage to the famous Icelandic explorer.

Blue Lagoon

As far back as the 12th century, Iceland discovered that its abundance of geothermal pools was both a luxury and a benefit. Visitors today can enjoy a variety of deliciously hot public swimming pools and natural springs. The most famous of all is the Blue Lagoon, which is located in a lava field about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. The water temperature fluctuates between 98 and 104 degrees. Visiting the Blue Lagoon can be an all-day affair if you choose. I only wish I had the time. I was there for a few hours, though; enough time to soak in the enormous hot spring, apply a silica mud mask to my face, and get a smoothie at the Lagoon Bar without ever getting out of the water. It was blissful. With more time, I could have taken advantage of other amenities like saunas, steam rooms, relaxation areas, a cafe and a restaurant. Visitors can even reserve private lounges and receive in-water massages with advance booking. Transportation to and from a city hotel or the airport is easily available and can be booked when buying admission tickets. Itís not unheard of for people to spend a few hours at the Blue Lagoon before hopping back on a plane to another destination, especially since Icelandair allows passengers to make free stopovers for as long as seven days or as short as 24 hours.

Golden Circle

The 200-mile-long Golden Circle drive includes three of Iceland's best-known attractions: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. Many outfitters offer the immensely popular daytrip as an excursion, which is how I visited the sites in one day. Thingvellir National Park is the site of Icelandís ancient parliament, which dates to 930 and met there until 1798. In fact, the word Thingvellir means ìparliament plains.î It is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The plates are slowly separating from each other, creating deep fissures in the ground that are rather amazing to see. In 2004, the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next up is Haukadalur, a geothermal area that is home to the famous geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Wait around long enough and you’ll be rewarded with Strokkur shooting water up to 100 feet up in the air. Even though youíre expecting it, it feels like a surprise when it happens. Everyone around me cheered. The last ñ and perhaps most spectacular ñ stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, where the Hvita River roars down three separate drops before continuing south. On a sunny day, you might just glimpse a rainbow, like I did. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Invariably, visitors come away from Iceland vowing to return ñ as did I. Itís a place I want to share with my friends and family if I ever get the chance. So even though you may check it off your bucket list, Iceland might just become a destination you will want to experience again and again.
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Smart Budgeting on Tap

By Roberto X. Cruz

Like calorie counting, a personal budget is often associated with sacrifice. But finance expert and AAA Member Neale Godfrey puts a more positive spin on it. She says a personal budget is how you identify what you want and how to afford it. Without one, you’re basically driving down the road without a destination.

Simply put, a budget is an itemized list of income and expenses. To create one, write down how much money you earn each week after deductions such as income taxes, 401(k) and health insurance. Then list your fixed expenses: in this case, a weekly breakdown of what you pay for bills like rent, utilities, insurance, cellphone and anything else that costs the same every month. As the week goes by, log everything you spend money on, Godfrey said. At the end of the week, take a long, hard look at what you’re buying and decide if those purchases are enhancing your life or if you would like that money to go someplace else, Godfrey said. That someplace else could be paying back credit card debt or saving for a vacation. It could also be allocating a certain amount of money for unexpected expenses.

A recent AAA survey showed 64 million Americans would not be able to pay for an unexpected car repair bill without going into debt. There are some high-tech apps available to help you track your expenses. Here are a few.


This free app helps users track spending and set savings goals. It also has a receipt scan function that makes inputting expenses a little easier.


Also free, Mint compiles data from a userís bank, credit card and investment accounts in one location. Tap the trends tab for a snapshot of how you spent your money over a specific time period.


Set monthly spending limits by stuffing digital envelopes full of virtual cash at the start of every month. Goodbudget is Reports section also provides a pie chart and bar graph that illustrate spending habits. Return to Top

The Top 10 in Nashville, Tenn.

By Kate McElveen

Set to a soundtrack of country music that streams through the music joints on Lower Broadway, a stroll through Nashville is museums and music-centric monuments makes it clear that the epicenter of country music is no one-hit wonder. And, like a crooner who isn't ready to give up the spotlight, the city has evolved into a multifaceted destination filled with historic sites and thriving art and culinary scenes. You'll want to rent a car: Some of Nashville is best sites are located just out of town.


Get a dose of live music, Nashville style, at Robert is Western World, Tootsieís Orchid Lounge and the rest of the honky-tonks along Lower Broadway.


Explore Centennial Park is full-size replica of the Parthenon, which was originally built for Tennessee is 1897 Centennial Exposition and now houses the city is art museum.


Listen to original archived recordings and climb aboard a replica tour bus at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where costumes, instruments and other memorabilia are also on display.


Built in 1929 to house a mirror too large for the Cheek family s home, the 32-room Cheekwood Mansion is now an art gallery with an outdoor sculpture trail and botanical garden.


Make your own printed poster at Hatch Show Print, which has been designing and creating promotional posters for concerts, circuses, vaudeville acts and other businesses since the 1870s.


The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge stretches over the Cumberland River and offers terrific views of Nissan Stadium (home of the Tennessee Titans), Nashville’s skyline and, if you time it just right, sunset.


Stroll through Nashville’s trendy 12 South neighborhood and you might catch a glimpse of Reese Witherspoon, who owns Draper James, a boutique named for her grandparents.


Catch a show or backstage tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which was built in 1890 as a venue for religious revivals and is blessed with near-perfect acoustics.


Channel your inner Picasso in the Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery, an interactive gallery where a variety of mediums are just waiting to be poured, cut, sloshed and brushed into artistic expressions.


Roy Acuff, Carrie Underwood and just about every country star in between has performed at the Grand Ole Opry, a radio stalwart since 1925. Come for a performance; stay for the post-concert tour. Return to Top

Save & Splurge: Portsmouth, N.H.

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

Portsmouth, N.H., is one of those charming New England seaside towns, packed with a lively waterfront, gorgeous historic homes, and a walkable downtown filled with restaurants and museums. From an outing on the Piscataqua River to a visit to the Strawbery Banke Museum, the whole family will find something to love here.


Stay: The Port Inn Portsmouth is conveniently located just off the highway and minutes from downtown. It offers several attractive perks, including free Wi-Fi, an outdoor heated pool and complimentary breakfast. Rooms are bright and airy, and some even have kitchenettes with microwaves and mini-refrigerators.

Do:Portsmouth is best explored on foot. Visitors can sign up for different guided walking tours ($15) at the Discover Portsmouth visitor center or pick up a self-guided tour map to explore on their own. Options include a general city tour, a historic homes option and a black heritage trail, among others.

Dine: The Roundabout Diner & Lounge is a classic crowd pleaser. Breakfast standards include omelets, pancakes and French toast, while lunch and dinner feature sandwich and burger combinations, plus truffle lobster mac and cheese and the 15-hour smoked pulled pork. Blueberry pie is a favorite dessert.


Stay: Part of the quirky Lark Hotel brand known for its whimsical decor, the Hotel Portsmouth is ideally located in downtown Portsmouth. It offers 32 guest rooms, with amenities like in-room iPads programmed with dining and attraction recommendations, complimentary breakfast and free parking.

Do: The Strawbery Banke Museum is a must for families or anyone interested in Portsmouth’s history. With more than three dozen restored buildings on 10 acres, the living history museum explores Portsmouth’s heritage through costumed interpreters, exhibits and educational workshops.

Dine: The modern tapas restaurant Moxy is a city hotspot, which makes sense considering the chef, Matt Louis, is a three-time James Beard-nominated semifinalist. The menu features locally sourced seafood such as crispy Rhode Island calamari, marinated Maine crab and local haddock.


Stay: Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Wentworth by the Sea is one of Portsmouth’s last grand dame hotels, welcoming guests since 1874. Now a Marriott Hotel & Spa, the hotel features 161 luxurious guest rooms and suites, a full-service spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a tennis court and marina.

Do: Explore Portsmouth by water with a sail aboard the Piscataqua, a reproduction of a gundalow barge, a type of boat once prevalent on the local waterways. The Gundalow Company operates the boat on the Piscataqua River, and guests can help the crew raise the sail and steer the ship.

Dine: Using fresh dayboat fish and vegetables from its garden, Black Trumpet is an easy pick for dining. Chef Evan Mallett is a four-time James Beard semifinalist, and his paella ñ with chicken mole meatballs, chorizo, rabbit, snails, mushrooms, peppers and leeks ñ is a standout. Return to Top