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Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures New Year’s fireworks over Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Italy.

rome fireworks new year italy


Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

See Our Favorite Rome Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a tourist attraction perfect for an eerie Halloween night.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, December 30, 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 Julie Amaro, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Bran Castle.” Julie has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

copper canyon train mexicoIn this month’s featured review, reader vagabondginger shares the highlights of a seven-day trip through the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. “We boarded the El Chepe train in El Fuerte to the Posada Barrancas stop, winding through tunnels and across bridges,” wrote vagabondginger. “It goes from sea level to 8,000 feet in 150 miles. Barranca del Cobre or The Copper Canyon is actually several canyons and its gigantic gorges are larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, but it is different as it is more verdant.”

Read the rest of vagabondginger’s review here: Copper Canyon Trip Nov 23-29, 2013. Vagabondginger has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures a Christmas market in Frankfurt, Germany.

frankfurt christmas market germany


Photos: 12 Best Germany Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

See Which Airport Has a Christmas Market

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents an interesting natural attraction.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, December 23, 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 Gayleen, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Dominican Republic.” Gayleen has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

amazon river la estrella amazonicaI’ve cruised the Amazon River before — but this time was different.

My first two voyages stuck to the Brazilian part of the waterway and were on mainstream ships. The regions we traveled through were a backdrop to life onboard — a variety of restaurants, formal nights and lavish entertainment. Shore excursions on these trips barely scratched the surface of local life and nature, and there was little Amazon influence in our food, beverages or entertainment.

In contrast, this trip — a seven-day International Expeditions itinerary departing from Iquitos, Peru — was the most immersive cruise I’ve ever taken, with Peruvian music, food and wine onboard, and a wide range of in-depth experiences, both natural and cultural.

As a first-timer to the world of expedition cruising, I wondered if I’d miss the little luxuries of big-ship cruise travel. I need not have worried. The 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica was delightful, and as you can see from my wrap-up, the trip contained very, very few missteps.

HITS

Amazonian Education: All International Expeditions’ trips emphasize wildlife, and our ship’s pair of naturalist guides, who both hailed from the region, were passionate and knowledgeable. They could identify what seemed to be thousands of species of birds, guide a kayaking trip down a creek while offering sightings of monkeys swinging between trees, and expertly bait a hook to catch a fleet of piranhas.

For me, though, it was the interaction with locals that really captured the spirit of the trip. Both guides chatted up people we came across — in villages, even fishermen in their dug-out canoes.

amazon river la estrella amazonicaThe Boat: Cruising the Amazon for nearly 20 years via chartered boats, International Expeditions cemented its commitment to the river this year by designing and building its first-ever custom ship. The result, La Estrella Amazonica, is lovely. All cabins have private balconies — a first for any Amazon river operator.

The best spot onboard is the fabulous open-air sundeck and bar, with super-comfy wicker couches, barstools and round tables that make it feel like an airy, spacious Peruvian living room.

Peruvian Food: The ship’s Peruvian-born chef didn’t pander to American palates, and menus strongly reflected comfort-style Amazonian cuisine. Occasionally there was a theme night — such as Chinese, which is hugely popular in this region, and even Italian — but the real stars were the seafood, rice, beans, fresh fruit juices and salads.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

The Music: We loved the nightly jam sessions held onboard during the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Almost every member of the crew — from housekeepers to boat drivers — participated, playing an eccentric mix of songs, from Peruvian folk tunes to the Beatles.

Waterlogged: Being part of a 31-passenger ship gives you the up-close-and-personal access you’d never find on a big ship. There was lots to see along the river — villages, bus-boats that transport locals (and their cows, coal and crops) between Iquitos and Nauta, and other similar-sized cruise ships operated by Lindblad and Aqua Expeditions.

But the real discoveries, particularly wildlife, were better found on smaller tributaries via flat-bottomed skiffs. In a week, we logged some 185 miles on the skiffs (La Estrella Amazonica itself trawled nearly 500 miles during the cruise), where we embarked on jungle walks, swimming and kayaking.

MISSES

amazon river piranhaGetting There: Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s Amazon basin, is the starting point for cruises operated by all the major players in the region, but getting there is an adventure in its own right. First, you fly to Lima, then catch a connecting 1.5-hour flight to Iquitos. For some cruises, it’s then another 1.5-hour drive along a winding jungle road to a village called Nauta (thankfully, we were spared that extra long drive).

Most international flights from the U.S. arrive in the wee hours of the morning and depart in the middle of the night. Our advice: Plan to get to Lima with a couple of days to spare — and explore that city before heading out on your Amazon adventure. Iquitos is also an interesting outpost.

Moving Around: Aside from a kayaking adventure and a couple of jungle hikes, it was surprising how sedentary the activities were. Much time was spent eyeing wildlife from the skiffs, and unlike in Europe where towpaths for cyclists and joggers line the rivers, there’s no easy access to exercise on the Amazon.

On the plus side: La Estrella Amazonica has a small fitness facility, with two treadmills and two spinning cycles.

Shops, Restaurants and Nightlife: There aren’t any! Aside from a pair of village visits, where local women presented their handicrafts for sale, this is a nature-oriented experience. The best shopping and dining we had was in Lima.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

time fliesThis post is part of our Time Flies series, highlighting unique ways to spend your down time at airports around the world.

With the holidays upon us and busy travelers scurrying about to reach their final destinations, I was hoping some airport, anywhere, would be able to bring the holiday spirit forth. Lo and behold, the Munich International Airport delivered in grand style.

For those unfamiliar, this year marks the 14th year that the Munich International Airport has brought the Bavarian spirit front and center with its seasonal winter market. What better way to start your holiday than by visiting a traditional German Christmas market before your holiday trip even begins?

Within the market, travelers will find 50 authentic stands filled with everything from schnitzel and mulled wine to cuckoo clocks and ornaments. To make things even more seasonal — keeping in mind that all this is at an airport — there is the smell of fresh ice emanating from the oversized skating rink combined with some 300 Christmas trees, the highlight of which stands nearly 50 feet tall.

munich airport winter market


While the seasonal market is sure to delight, the Munich International Airport is not without its year-round staples to enhance your layover a bit more. Along with the usual airport staples, it happens to be the proud owner of the largest roofed-in beer garden in all of Germany.

Yes, that’s right — an airport with an actual beer garden. With space for more than 600 thirsty travelers, it’ll make you feel like you’ve stepped from Christmastime into the middle of Oktoberfest. Order an Airbrau, a highly rated, relatively inexpensive beer brewed on site. As you suck down that cold (lukewarm) one, you’ll take in the chestnut trees, a real maypole and jaw-dropping (by airport standards) views of the architecture. If you didn’t fill up on German fare at the Christmas market, this is your second chance to grab that schnitzel (apologies for the writer’s personal bias, as plenty of other options exist).

Photos: 12 Unforgettable Germany Experiences
Best Airports for Layovers

So if you’re planning a jaunt through Germany this time of year, and airport options abound, consider Munich International Airport as a place that a layover just might not be so bad. Do you know of any other airports getting into the holiday spirit? If so, please share them in the comments below.

– written by Matt Leonard

alex trebekI recently had the opportunity to meet “Jeopardy!” game show host and pop culture icon Alex Trebek at an event hosted by Lindblad Expeditions. A long-time fan of the show, I was encouraged not only by the fact that we both love trivia, but also by our shared passion for travel and, unexpectedly, movies.

In our interview, I asked whether someone so worldly (Trebek has traveled to both Antarctica and the Galapagos with Lindblad) could have anything left on his bucket list. His reply was strangely specific: “Iguazu Falls — that’s inland. The Amazon has always interested me because I’ve had this long desire to get to Manaus, for some reason, and Manaus is a fascinating city. It had the first opera house in South America, 200 years ago, and that’s on my bucket list. Lhasa, in Tibet, is also very much on my list, and I almost did it this past year with National Geographic. They had an around-the-world flight that was supposed to take us to Lhasa, but the Chinese government had closed Tibet, so they rerouted everybody to another place in China, which was fine.”

However, Trebek still has an interest in Asia: “I missed out two years ago — we sent our Clue Crew to Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos, and I didn’t get to Angkor Wat, which is on my bucket list also. Oddly enough, in South China — not far from Canton, I think — there are some beautiful places, accessible; you’ve seen them in travel magazines a lot — with the rocks coming out of the water — that’s someplace I would like to visit also.”

Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited But Should

What’s Alex Trebek’s favorite place to visit? “Yorkshire, England. Emily Bronte country. The moors, yes, my wife and I have walked the moors; we picked heather on the moors. Top Withens supposedly might have been the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. My wife and I have a picture of ourselves in front of that building.”

Having read that Trebek and his family are expert packers (and that he actually enjoys flying), I had to ask if he could offer any advice for the everyday traveler. The answer was surprising: “If you can’t do a two-week vacation with one roll-on and a shoulder bag, you’re not a good traveler at all. I have a friend who went to Prague with his partner, and his partner overpacked (had six or seven sweaters and never wore four or five of them). I’m on a three-day trip, here in New York then on to Washington and back to Los Angeles, and I overpacked but [my bag is] still light.”

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

As a routine overpacker, I felt the bite of “not a good traveler” and had to raise my spirits with a lighter question. Knowing that Trebek is a fan of both travel and movies, I figured he might have a favorite travel movie on file. “I’m thinking a film called ‘Hurricane’ with Dorothy Lamour. There are others in more recent days, of course. ‘Indiana Jones’ films feature a lot of geography, and they show you the maps and where the plane is going on the map so you can keep track — and they all wind up fighting bad Germans.”

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures sunset over Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro from a viewpoint in Amboseli, Kenya.

kilimanjaro amboseli kenya savanna sunset


How to Plan an African Safari

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Kenya Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Welcome to IndependentTraveler.com’s 12 Days of Travel Giveaways! Every day between December 2 and December 13, we’ll feature a different travel product for our readers to win. You may enter to win as many items as you wish (but only once per item).

lipault foldable carry-onOur final giveaway is a Lipault 22-Inch Two-Wheeled Foldable Carry-On, a lightweight bag that can be compressed into a four-inch-wide plastic case for easy storage.

Here’s what we had to say about the bag in The Quest for the Perfect Carry-On: “I expected a thinner, floppier material (a la LeSportsac bags or ultra-light camping equipment), but it’s actually pretty sturdy. I carried it onboard one way, and could easily lift and carry the bag, while simultaneously pushing a stroller and carrying a backpack. I checked it on the way back, and it came back to me with no scuffs or tears. And it truly does squeeze down into a compact storage case that would fit easily under a bed, in a closet or in the corner of a cruise ship cabin.”

The carry-on retails for $189 at the Lipault website.

Want to win this gently used purple carry-on? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on December 15, 2013. 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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Isabel Menendez. Congratulations!

Did you miss any of our previous giveaways? Catch up here: 12 Days of Travel Giveaways: Full List

– written by Sarah Schlichter