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After recently spending a week at the home of a family friend in Grenada, I was a bit surprised to find that I had taken a vacation in the Caribbean and come back with not only a wicked tan, but also an education. An island in the West Indies, Grenada is a bit of a palimpsest, with traces of British and French roots visible in rusted fleur-de-lis fencing and cannons from another era. Although every country (no matter how small) can claim its own culture, Grenada stood apart with such a distinct identity that I’ll never make the mistake of confusing it for “just another island in the Caribbean” again. Here are five reasons the Spice Island left such an impression.

First-Place Flora
bird of paradise flower in Grenada

Grenada has won the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show 10 times, and when you step foot on the island you’ll immediately see why. Look left, look right, and spot countless species of blooms and trees crowding the landscape. Nature trails run in conjunction with numerous waterfalls, providing harmony among the elements and also convenient flower-gazing under a single entrance fee. Particularly pretty is Annandale Falls, where this photo was taken. Seven Sisters Falls, one of the top-ranked attractions in Grenada, is located within Grand Etang National Park, a rain forest preserve located high up in the island’s interior.


Organic Exports
fruit and vegetable stand in Grenada

A nickname like the Spice Isle comes with a reputation, and it holds up. Enjoy the flavors of Grenada’s famous nutmeg, cocoa and cinnamon in dishes prepared across the island (or sprinkled in rum punch). Take advantage of the variety of fresh fruit — and juice — while you are there (packing mangoes wrapped in your dirty laundry is frowned upon by the TSA) and experiment with your tastebuds by trying flavors like golden apple, tamarind, soursop and even sea moss. Spice up your knowledge by talking to vendors about which products — jams, jellies, syrups and powder — come from which part of the nutmeg (yes, there are multiple parts!). Look also for popular treats like chocolate tea and homemade ice cream.


Surprising History
a view from inside Fort George in Grenada

Learn the real story behind the American invasion of Grenada, see the ruins of gorgeous cathedrals still devastated by Hurricane Ivan, snorkel for underwater statues inspired by Grenada’s slave trade and learn the story behind the tragic Leaper’s Hill (which includes the final resting place of the first known patient of sickle cell anemia). The assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop (whose name was given to the international airport) took place in recent history — 31 years ago this past Sunday (October 19) and the bullet holes can still be seen in the deteriorating Fort George. The island’s history is rich, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand the pivotal events that have shaped it.


Take a Dip
female swimmer exiting water on Paradise Beach in Carriacou near Grenada

Grand Anse may be the island’s best-known stretch of sand, but anywhere that seems safe for a swim is fair game in Grenada. From local favorite Bathway Beach, which has views resembling a Caribbean-style Cliffs of Moher, to the hideaway of Petit Anse, just behind a hotel’s bar and restaurant, it’s not difficult to find your own secret beach (and the water is typically warm and ripe for swimming). Particularly picturesque is Carriacou, a neighboring island just a ferry ride away. Aptly named, Paradise Beach is a bumpy taxi ride down back roads, but offers almost total seclusion and a view that makes it difficult to catch the 3:30 ferry back to Grenada.


The People
man playing guitar at annandale waterfall in grenada

A place can be the most scenic, culturally significant, accommodating destination with haute cuisine and diversions for every day of the week, but for me, it always comes down to the people. In Grenada they were friendly, welcoming and eager to show us their island (or to sing us a tune). I had the great opportunity to live locally and to stay with a family, but ventured out on my own using local buses and a little direction. It’s always slightly unsettling exploring somewhere new for the first time and learning your boundaries, but by the fish fry in Gouyave on our last night, when we ran into practically everyone we met on the entire trip there, the sense of pride and community wasn’t just obvious — it was infectious.

Six Quick Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Vacation
Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

On your next trip, you could go out for a nice, quiet dinner — or you could eat your meal behind bars … or underwater … or in a fancy restroom! At these one-of-a-kind restaurants, it’s not just about the food. In fact, meals take the back burner while ambience and unique entertainment steal the show.

ithaa underwater restaurant maldivesIthaa, Rangali Island, Maldives
Part of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, this all-glass restaurant is situated underwater, some 16 feet below the surface of the ocean. It features 180-degree views in a small dining room that seats about 12, who are lucky enough to watch sea creatures sailing by as they dine on modern European cuisine.

Food and Travel: The Ultimate Guide


alcatraz er tokyoAlacatraz E.R., Tokyo, Japan
Not that you ever wanted to dine behind bars … but Alcatraz E.R. offers the chance in blood- and body part-splattered jail cells (fake, of course). Guests sip cocktails out of test tubes and mannequin heads, and during meals, you might find the lights going out as “escapees” enter the prison cells.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences


supperclub amsterdamSupperclub, Amsterdam, Netherlands
So maybe you don’t want to dine behind bars, but who doesn’t want to eat in bed? At Supperclub, four-course meals and cocktails are served on mattresses, housed in a dimly lit room. Guests also enjoy live, often interactive entertainment such as burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and freak shows, along with music and art.

Photos: Best Netherlands Experiences


modern toilet taipeiModern Toilet, Taipei, Taiwan
Normally, you want to avoid a trip to the bathroom following a meal, but at this restaurant, you’ll practically eat in the restroom. Patrons sit on toilets and at tables that resemble bathroom sinks. Meanwhile, more toilets adorn the walls. Drinks are served in glasses that look like urinals, and food is delivered in miniature porcelain thrones (and chocolate ice cream is on the menu).

7 Strange Foods from Around the World

le refuge des fonduesLe Refuge des Fondues, Paris, France
This tourist spot has gained attention for the way it serves wine: in baby bottles. It’s tiny, too — so tiny, in fact, that you might have to jump over a table to access seats along the wall (diners sit together at two long tables). Graffiti is encouraged (the walls are covered with it), and delicious fondue is served.

Photos: 12 Best France Experiences


pink door seattleThe Pink Door, Seattle, U.S.A.
Hidden in an alley at Pike Place Market, the Pink Door isn’t just the name of the restaurant; it’s what you’ll need to search for to find the place (there aren’t any signs). Once inside, you’ll walk down a set of stairs — the restaurant is situated underground — to a small room lit by candles. Delicious Italian fare is served, but the real draw is the entertainment. A trapeze artist twirls and spins overhead on Sundays and Mondays, while Saturdays feature burlesque and cabaret shows.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two tourist sites associated with classic novels.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hobbiton village in New Zealand (based on Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series), or …

hobbiton matamata new zealand lord of the rings



… visit Green Gables, the Prince Edward Island farm that inspired the “Anne of Green Gables” books?

green gables prince edward island


Hobbiton is located near Matamata on the North Island of New Zealand. The village, used as a set for Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movie trilogies, is now open for tours. “Anne of Green Gables” fans will recognize the Green Gables home in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. L.M. Montgomery, the author of the famous book series, visited the farm often when she was growing up (it belonged to her grandfather’s cousins), and used it as inspiration for the home of her lovable red-headed orphan.

9 Great Authors and the Places That Shaped Them

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

world destination


Hint: The final resting place of renowned philosophers, artists and politicians, this is considered one of the most visited cemeteries in the world.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, October 20, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Susan, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Susan has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

Size
The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Zippers
Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Material
Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

Handles
I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

– written by Colleen McDaniel

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two stunning lakes.

Would you rather…

… visit Lake Bled, a glacier lake in Slovenia, or …

lake bled slovenia



… check out Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, fringed with volcanoes?

lake atitlan guatemala


Slovenia’s Lake Bled is located in the Julian Alps. Aside from its natural beauty, the lake’s biggest draw is medieval Bled Castle, which dates back to the 11th century. Lake Atitlan is said to be the deepest in Central America and is surrounded by volcanoes and Mayan villages.

Photos: The World’s Coolest Lakes

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, October 13, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Judy Jones, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Kazakhstan. Judy has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

That’s right — it’s time for another round-up of silly travel signs! (Check out our first two installments here and here.) Got a picture of your own to share? Feel free to submit it on our Facebook page, in the comments below or by email at feedback@independenttraveler.com.

do not start the engine until the boat is in the water

Reader Allison Duke Newham send this one to us from Nice, France. There goes our plan to launch our boat right from the beach. …


parking sign stuttgart

Of this photo, reader Jo Cool La writes, “I always got a kick out of this sign in Stuttgart, Germany, near our apartment.” We have no idea who this couple is supposed to represent, but we love their style!


bitte danke toilet sign

Jo Cool La provides another German gem, this time from her hotel room in Garmisch-Partenkirkchen. Guess this property has had enough of cleaning up after people with, er, poor aim.


funny tissue box

This last one from Jo Cool La isn’t exactly a sign, but we’re including it because it made us smile. Maybe these tissues are for those times that you laugh until you cry.

Have you spotted any wonky signs on your journeys? If so, send them our way: feedback@independenttraveler.com.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

red wire cut from computerToo many users sharing the network, thick walls, incorrect settings — these may all be reasons you’ve concocted to explain your horrible Internet signal or poor cell phone reception during your latest hotel stay. But did the thought ever cross your mind that it was sabotage?

According to an article from CNN, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, a Marriott property in Nashville, intentionally blocked guests from accessing their own personal Wi-Fi networks, forcing them to spend hundreds in order to use the hotel’s wireless Internet. Luckily the FCC got the signal loud and clear — and fined Marriott $600,000. The company will also have to file compliance plans with the commission every three months for the next three years. Federal law prohibits interference with cellular, GPS or wireless networks; according to the FCC, this is the first time a hotel property has been investigated for blocking guests’ Wi-Fi, but begs the question of whether other hotels aren’t guilty of the same practice.

In this case, Marriott employees used the hotel’s Wi-Fi system to block personal hot spots. The hotel chain maintains it did no wrong, stating, “We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Hidden Hotel Fees

Marriott claims that it was in fact protecting guests from “insidious” hot spots and potentially unsafe connections by blocking their ability to connect to them.

FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc stands by the ruling. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hot spots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network,” he told CNN. “This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

With so many hotels (especially convention centers) touting free Wi-Fi these days, I would probably not think anything of a poor connection, but would be suspicious of paying the equivalent of airfare just to log on.

Pay Less to Use Your Smartphone Overseas

Do you think hotels should have the right to control Internet connectivity on their premises, or is it just another way to make a buck? If you have a shady hotel Wi-Fi story, share in the comments.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

a woman on a train looking out the windowI fall for it every time: the idea that train travel is grand and romantic, much the same way I always expect New Year’s Eve to be exciting and momentous. With both, I usually end up disappointed and ready for it to be over.

I was recently reminded of this on a three-hour train ride from Newark, NJ, to Washington D.C. on Amtrak. Though it’s more of a commuter train experience than a travel one, I nevertheless initially visualized sitting in the dining car with a book and something pleasant to eat, relaxing all the way to D.C. The reality of the ride was somewhat different: the dining car was full and I had to walk through two train cars before I found an open seat – and the woman sitting in the adjoining seat was none too thrilled when I asked her to remove her two bags and discarded newspaper so that I could sit. Three hours turned into four when a “police action” in Philadelphia stopped our train cold. By the time I got to Washington D.C. I was hungry and irritated.

Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought it would be different. I’ve trained it around Europe before and never walked away relaxed or feeling like I’d just had a grand adventure.

In fact, I have almost no memories of any of my long-haul train rides. My first “real” train ride, from London to the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales as a 21-year-old backpacker, is a complete blur. I slept through almost the entire thing, exhausted after a flight from New York City to London. I have a few bleary memories of opening my eyes to see what looked like a castle whir by and thinking how beautiful it must be and what a waste it was that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

European Train Tips

Another overnight train ride, from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria, is also mostly a blur, though my strongest sense memory is one of fear. Fear of finding out I would have to share my sleeping compartment with a stranger – this worry popped up at every stop we made, all through the night (I never did have to share, though I didn’t sleep very well either). Fear that if I left to go get food from the dining car, someone would break into the cabin and take my stuff (I stayed in my compartment all night, forgoing food for reassurance).

Yet despite my mostly unromantic and humble train travels, one of my most intriguing travel memories actually did take place on an overnight train from Prague to Zurich in the days before the European Union existed.

When we got to the German border, immigration officers got on the train and passed through every car, looking at each passenger’s identification. The German officer who entered our car wore a dour face and demanded our passports in a tone of voice that invited no argument. There were six of us in the car: my sister and me (U.S. citizens) and four Italians traveling together. The officer took the first Italian’s passport, looked at it, looked at her, looked at the passport again and then handed it back. He did the same with me. Then he took a second Italian’s passport. Looked at it, looked at the guy, looked at the passport again, frowned and held on to it. He then proceeded to check my sister’s passport and those of the two remaining Italians before finally turning back to the young man’s passport he still held.

The officer held up the passport and inspected it, then looked at the man for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, the officer started laughing, handed the passport back and left. We were all stunned. That entire routine had been the officer’s idea of a joke — something to keep himself amused during the monotony of checking passports, I guess.

The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

That incident is one of my strongest memories of a six-week backpacking trip in Europe, and it happened on the train. Perhaps that’s why the notion of romantic, exotic, grand and, most importantly, memorable train trips has stuck with me. Train trips may be mostly boring, sleep-inducing experiences, but you never know what might happen.

Have you ever had a memorable experience while traveling on a train? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

– written by Dori Saltzman