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!
In this month’s winning review, a traveler takes his family from India to Russia and Northern Europe, exploring treasures both expected and unexpected. “[We visited] all the major attractions in Moscow such as St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, the Kremlin, etc.,” writes Vishwajit Patel. “We had an unplanned visit to the metro in Moscow. The Russians have definitely made a masterpiece of metro stations. Anyone travelling to Moscow must definitely visit the metro stations.”
Read the rest of Vishwajit’s review here: Russia/Scandinavia Experience. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!
Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s around this time of year that I start thinking about the perfect winter escape, and islands nearly always capture my attention. I tend to drift toward the Caribbean, but why? There are tens of thousands of islands on the planet, after all.
The following lists have gotten me to think about island escapes in a new way:
The 55 Best Islands in the World: Dozens of top travel bloggers around the world told DrifterPlanet.com about their favorite islands. One writer picked Spain’s Mallorca, which he acknowledged as touristy but noted: “There are absolutely some more secluded parts of the island to discover.” Another selected Saona Island, a nature reserve off the southeast tip of the Dominican Republic.
The Best Private-Island Vacations for Every Budget: The Wall Street Journal selected the top 12 islands that you can have all to yourself — and they’re not all eye-poppingly expensive. Bird Island in Belize, for example, runs just $295 a night for a three-bedroom house with blue sea views in every direction.
The Largest Islands in the World: While there’s plenty of remote charm to be found on little postage stamps in the middle of the sea, large islands tend to have more unique biodiversity, meaning you’ll get to see wildlife and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo top the list of the largest islands in the world.
The World’s Must-Visit Islands: This roundup from the BBC includes the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, Tristan da Cunha, in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Islands for the Jet Set: These glamorous islands span the globe, from Nevis in the Caribbean to the Maldives south of India to spectacular and little-known gems off Mozambique.
6 Cruise Line Private Islands: Our sister site Cruise Critic provides the lowdown on six Caribbean islands that are only accessible if you go on a cruise. Many are in or near the Bahamas.
Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.
Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.
1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.
2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.
Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.
3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.
4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.
5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.
Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.
Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.
Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.
Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish quit their jobs, rented out their condo, found temporary digs for their cats and will head out next week on an adventure years in the making.
Starting on New Year’s Day, the two Washington D.C. residents will spend a year visiting every national park in the United States. They selected 2016 for their trip partially because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
As Payne, a 36-year-old writer, and Irish, 41, a photographer, finished packing up their home, we caught up with the couple to hear more about the journey ahead.
Independent Traveler.com: Why did you decide to do this road trip?
Jonathan Irish: Stefanie and I both grew up loving the great outdoors, and especially the beautiful nature in our U.S. national parks. The special celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, along with our love of nature, inspired us to commit to spending the entire year adventuring and photographing in every one of the 59 parks. We can’t think of a better way to spend a year.
IT: Was it scary to quit your jobs?
JI: While we appreciate the stability that a regular job provides, every once in a while it is good to shake things up, to see life in a different way. As hard as it was to leave jobs at organizations we love [Payne worked at NASA and Irish at the National Geographic Society], we both felt the pull to do our own project.
IT: Where do you go first?
Stefanie Payne: We’ll start in the southeastern United States, where there are five parks — three in Florida, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands and one in South Carolina. We are going to reveal our route as we go, to keep an element of surprise.
IT: How will you be traveling?
JI: We will be traveling in an SUV towing an Airstream travel trailer. We chose the Airstream for two reasons. First, there’s a certain nostalgia we associate with Airstream trailers that is similar to the nostalgia we feel for the national parks. It felt like the right way to do it! From a more practical standpoint, we needed to have a home office on the road. The Airstream provided us with that ability to have a consistent place to work and rest.
We are calling this a road trip, and we will drive to every park where we can in fact take the car and Airstream. But there are some parks on islands — American Samoa, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands — where we will have to fly and rent a vehicle.
IT: Which parks are you most looking forward to seeing?
SP: I am so excited for Katmai in Alaska! Growing up in Washington state, the annual salmon run is a big part of the culture in terms of Native American history and the ecology of the region. To see its end with grizzlies catching them in the river, and to get that iconic shot, will be for me a strong personal connection.
JI: I too am excited for Alaska, and in particular some of the remote parks that a lot of visitors don’t get to, like Gates of the Arctic. I love photographing the Southwest, so am very excited for more time there. The bigger parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are always amazing and so to spend some good time in them is a dream. And I am excited for the unknown, the unexpected experiences that we can’t foresee that blow us away.
SP: I also think there will be a lot of beauty found in parks that I didn’t know existed until we started researching this project.
JI: I think the road trip in itself — the trials and tribulations of living in small quarters and driving throughout the entire U.S. — will be really fun and interesting too.
IT: What kinds of activities do you plan to do in the parks?
SP: Jon and I love to hike and kayak, so there will be a lot of that year-round. And we got some new stand-up paddleboards, which neither of us have ever tried and can’t wait to learn.
JI: We’ve chosen to see and experience the Grand Canyon via rafting, which has always been on our to-do list. We will kayak and camp in the Everglades, hike in just about every park and of course, take lots of photos.
IT: What has been the most difficult part of the planning?
JI: For me, it’s been the million little details that we must be on top of. We’ve been in D.C. for seven or eight years now, and in that time we’ve become quite entrenched in so many ways. I don’t think one can fully understand or see how entrenched they are until they try to pick up and leave. From finding a temporary home for our cats, to renting the condo, cutting the cable bill, packing up, getting new health insurance and a million other details, it’s incredibly hard to make a major move like this.
SP: Planning for this project has been a balancing act like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an enormous amount of change to endure during a short period of time.
IT: What’s on your must-pack list, and what are some of the creature comforts of home you won’t be able to bring along?
SP: Must pack: Outdoor gear, awesome hiking boots, books, camera gear. We’ll bring maps and obviously use iPhone maps and apps.
JI: I am packing my camera gear very carefully, as I want to be prepared for everything. We are also making sure we have the camping and backpacking gear we need in order to dig as deep into the parks as we want to. Besides a great coffee maker, I can do without most other things!
SP: We can’t imagine not having our cats with us all the time, but it’s just not that kind of trip.
IT: Can we check in with you in a few months and see how the trip is going?
SP: So much is going to happen all the time and we are so excited to share our story this year. The story will unfold on our website and Facebook page.
Editor’s Note: Read the follow-up to this post: Catching Up with the Couple Visiting Every U.S. National Park.
Check out more travel interviews!
National Park Vacations
Less Traveled National Parks
–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
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, December 21, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. 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 Pat, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Belarus. Pat has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
On the first day of a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I found myself elbow to elbow with a mob of fellow tourists outside Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, one of the city’s most famous attractions. A few hours later, I shouldered through the hordes at a Christmas market in front of the cathedral. And the next day I discovered a line stretching out the door of the basilica in Montserrat (a popular day trip from Barcelona), where hundreds of travelers waited to touch the hand of the revered Black Madonna. I’d hoped to miss out on crowds by traveling in early December, part of Spain’s winter low season, but that wasn’t the case — with one exception.
During an hour and a half at Pedralbes Monastery, located in a leafy residential area just a 15-minute subway ride from the center of the city, I wandered through the world’s largest Gothic cloister, peered into small cells where nuns once embroidered and prayed, and marveled over a chapel adorned with colorful 14th-century frescoes. The best part? I had this serene spot almost entirely to myself.
Known in Catalan as Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes, the monastery was founded in 1327 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a home for the Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns. While the sisters lived lives of quiet contemplation, they also accumulated a surprising number of religious treasures, from altarpieces and alabaster sculptures to gold and silver chalices. (My favorite? The massive, richly illustrated choir books.) Many of these artifacts are on display under the vaulted ceiling of what was once the nuns’ dormitory.
As you walk through the monastery, you’ll see the sepulcher of Queen Elisenda, the refectory where the nuns took their meals, the abbey room (the oldest part of the building) and even the kitchen, where I loved the colorful tiles added in the 19th century. It’s easy to imagine what life may have been like here, especially when you stand in the center of the cloister with its trees, fountains and medicinal garden. It’s a perfect place for quiet contemplation — and a balm to anyone seeking to escape the crowds at Barcelona’s top tourist spots.
To reach the monastery, you can take the FGC train (which connects easily to the Metro) from Placa Catalunya to the Reina Elisenda station, a 10- to 15-minute walk from Pedralbes. Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus also runs out to the monastery. Note that the church attached to the monastery is accessed via a different entrance and has more limited hours, so you may want to stop there first to make sure you don’t miss out.
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences
Do you know any other under-the-radar attractions in Barcelona? Share them in the comments!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
I’m a sucker for a good top 10 list. I’ll read any that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. They’re nice and neat, a good round number, easily skimmable if the topic doesn’t thrill me.
Throughout the year, I’ve collected the best top 10 lists in travel. Most are useful and worth bookmarking; others rank high on the “fascinating but useless trivia” scale.
10 Places You Have to See to Believe: The gorgeous photography withstanding, it is hard to image that some of these spots actually exist on Earth. This Conde Nast Traveler slideshow in and of itself is a bucket list.
10 Longest Flights in the World: It never ceases to amaze me that a giant hunk of metal called an airplane can get off the ground, let alone stay up there for hours at a time. Currently, the longest flight in the world is more than 17 hours long; this article from Road Warrior Voices tells you where it goes.
Top 10 Train Station Restaurants in Europe: I’ve always found train travel to be so civilized and dignified. My next trip to Europe will be even more so when I dine at one of these spots.
10 Most Ethical Destinations in the World: Each December, a California-based nonprofit called Ethical Traveler releases a list of the countries that do the most to promote human rights, conserve their environments and support social welfare. Palau, Uruguay and Lithuania are among those that made the list in 2015.
Top 10 Film- and TV-Themed Bars and Restaurants: There’s a “Breaking Bad”-themed coffee shop in Istanbul — who knew? (I’d keep very close tabs on what they put into your coffee if I were you.)
Top 10 Travel Apps for 2015: This Business Review Europe article introduced me to a free app that monitors the ultraviolet index in your current location and reminds you when to reapply sunscreen. This was helpful during a beach vacation and a high-altitude trip to the Rocky Mountains, when I normally wouldn’t think too much about sun protection.
10 Luxury Journeys to Experience in 2016: CNN interviews travel specialists about their picks for stylish destinations to see next year. Central Asia, a little-known spot in Japan and Colombia made the intriguing list.
Top 10 Bike-Friendly Wine Routes: From the Wachau Valley in Austria to the northernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island, these are the most picturesque places to combine an affinity for cycling with a love of wine tasting.
Alton Brown’s Favorite Restaurants from a Cross-Country Trip: The Food Network star is a humble diner. He picked an old-school soda fountain in Philadelphia, a Boise drive-in and a tamale joint in Tucson as some of the favorite places he ate this year during a lecture tour.
10 Totally Madcap Micronations: Every year you hear of some guy declaring his independence and starting his own country. World Travel Guide tells the stories of 10 so-called “micronations,” including one with a giant, goofy smiley face on its flag.
Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:
Note: Chancellors count as well! We’re in search of any country with a woman in the highest executive position.
Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 14, 2015, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. 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 Bonnie McKenna, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.
— created by Sarah Schlichter
Okay, so winter technically hasn’t even officially arrived yet — but we’re already getting sick of short, gray days and long, dark nights. And we’ve still got several months to go!
To cheer ourselves up on days like these, we naturally turn our thoughts to thoughts of travel. Today we’re mentally transporting ourselves to the following vibrant destinations as an escape from the dreary winter landscapes here at home.
The charming little fishing village of Burano, located in the Venetian Lagoon, is painted every color of the rainbow.
Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences
Get a taste of another culture in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, where you can visit a temple, browse bustling markets and nosh on authentic Indian dishes.
Singapore City Guide
Now is a perfect time to book a spring trip to see the magnificent Keukenhof gardens in Holland, which are only open for a couple of months a year.
The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens
With its fascinating culture, vibrant cities and warm sunshine, Cuba will cure any case of the winter blahs.
A Walking Tour of Old Havana
Where are you planning to travel this winter? (And if you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz!)
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Raise your hand if you’ve scrambled at the last minute to fill a Christmas stocking. We’re all usually focused on bigger gifts, leaving stockings to get stuffed from the mishmash of small, nominally priced items in the checkout aisle of a big-box retailer.
This Christmas, I’ll be filling stockings with as much care as I hang them. Here are indulgent and practical items under $20 that your travel-happy loved ones will appreciate (listed in order from least to most expensive):
Mini-funnels: How many times have you tried to fill those travel-sized bottles, only to end up with shampoo oozing down the side? These little funnels prevent gooey messes. Price: $1.71 for 10
Bottle-top humidifier: This is ideal for frequent hotel guests who find their rooms too dry. You simply screw the device onto a bottle of water and plug in using the included USB cord. Price: $5.81
Soft-sided bottle: Airports’ filtered water fountains and bottle refill stations are handy, but hard-sided plastic or aluminum water bottles don’t often fit well in the seatback pocket on an airplane. A soft-sided, pouch-like water bottle is a great solution. This one holds a liter of liquid. Price: $6.71
RFID-blocking passport wallet: Savvy hackers employ wireless devices to steal your identity by reading the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) info on your credit card and passport. Thwart their attempts by using a wallet that cannot be penetrated by wireless signals. This wallet stows cash, credit cards and a passport. Price: $9.99
Luxury-brand toiletries: Most of us either refill bottles with the shampoo and lotion brands we have at home or buy whatever’s cheapest at the local pharmacy. Why not indulge your loved one with a luxury brand, such as Bvlgari or Kiehl’s? Price: from $10
Lavender chamomile pillow mist: I use linen sprays like these to freshen up stale-smelling sheets, spritz worn clothing and help immortalize the memory of a trip, as I wrote about last year. This particular scent isn’t overpowering and could appeal to men and women. Price: $11.95
Sleep mask: Not only does this mask do superb work blocking out light, but it also contours around your eyes — you can actually still blink when it’s on — and doesn’t slip down your nose. Price: $12.95
Gadget organizer: This is the perfect companion for a long-haul flight: a nylon pouch with tons of tight elastic loops, pockets and pouches to keep all your little items organized. You’ll never have to root around on the floor for your lost pen or lip balm again. Price: $14.21
Neck rest: Unlike a standard neck pillow, the Releaf Neck Rest prevents you from becoming a sound-asleep bobblehead, because it supports your entire neck, not just the back and sides. Price: $17.61
Wine bottle protectors: The wine lover on your shopping list will appreciate these reusable bottle protectors, which wrap around your bottles and seal off potential leaks. Price: $19.97 for a set of three
Portable battery charger: Before you purchase a portable battery charger as a gift, make sure you know what brand of smartphone your loved one owns. This sleek, nine-ounce model works on iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones, Sony smartphones and other devices. Price: $19.99
For more ideas, check out 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts and 8 Travel-Themed Holiday Gift Ideas for the Home.
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma