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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 places to see colorful spring flowers.

Would you rather…

… explore Japan during cherry blossom season, or …

japan himeji castle cherry blossoms sakura



… see spring blooms in the Swiss Alps?

switzerland swiss alps flowers spring


Japan is famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms, which flower at various times between March and May (depending on which region of the country you’re visiting). In the mountains of Switzerland, striking alpine flowers add color to meadows and hillsides throughout the spring and summer.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 experiences on the water.

Would you rather…

… stay in an overwater bungalow in the Maldives, or …

overwater bungalow maldives



… explore the Mediterranean coast from a private yacht?

yacht mallorca spain


Think “overwater bungalows” and you probably think of French Polynesia, but the remote Maldives Islands also have their share of these luxe accommodations, hovering over the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In between diving and swimming, you can visit traditional villages and even join the locals on a night fishing excursion before retreating back to your bungalow. If sailing along the Mediterranean coast is more your speed, you can charter a yacht through companies such as AquaCruise, Sunsail or Yachting Partners International. Potential destinations include Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Italy and more.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane seatsMany consider spring a time for renewal — birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and people are getting married in droves. But just because winter is over and spring is on its way, doesn’t mean we immediately feel like singing “Here Comes the Sun.” What better cure than travel for what ails you? These five suggestions might be the change of pace you need to get chirping, blooming and falling in love with the season.

 

I’m Still Cold — For many of us, this winter was a brutal one and is still hanging tight. If the upwards motion of your thermometer is moving at a painstaking pace, jump-start your sun worship with some solar energy. The prospect of being stuck at a warm-weather resort during spring break is a scary one, so consider less conventional locations to heat you up. Post-Carnival, many South American capitals experience a dip in tourism. Lucky for us, weather is still pleasant in March and April (average highs in the 70s to 80s) and prices are cheaper in cities like Lima, Cartagena, San Jose, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. If you’re looking for something a bit farther, try a number of hot (literally and figuratively) Southeast Asian destinations including Chiang Mai, Goa and Luang Prabang in Laos; temperatures get into the 90s, but evenings are cooler and your money will go much farther in this region. If you’re looking to venture closer to the states, Mexico City offers equal respite from frozen precipitation and partygoers.
 
Slideshow: 10 Best Peru Experiences
 
I’m Tired — Like jet lag, but seasonal, post-hibernation sloth might take an adjustment period. To transition you from your winter cocoon into a spring butterfly, why not retreat for some vernal rejuvenation? From the spa keystone of Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona or Lenox, Massachusetts to a hotel in Paris that offers rooms specializing in a sleep-inducing atmosphere, why not splurge on some beauty rest? Helping you catch Zzzs has become an industry trend, according to a recent New York Times article.
 
I Haven’t Moved in Months — The New Year brings resolutions, but it also brings inevitable excuses: It’s dark out too early, it’s cold, I’m swamped with work, I just want to curl up into a ball and marathon everything ever broadcast on television. A new season is stimulus to step outdoors and renew your self-promises, and why not kick-start the process with an entire change of scenery? Plenty of walking, biking and other generally active tours will motivate you into movement with ample sightseeing and rewarding rest breaks. Not every active tour moves at a breakneck speed; Access Trips offers biking trips at beginner to intermediate levels, and tour companies like G Adventures allow you to sort through vacation packages by travel style and physical level. Destinations wrap the globe and feature Costa Rica, Turkey and the Outback.
 
Slideshow: 11 Best Australia Experiences
 
I Miss Holidays — Sure, we had Thesaurus Day (January 18) and National Earmuff Day (March 13), but they lacked the hoopla of the major winter holidays. This lull in festive food-stuffing and paid time off can be a bummer, so travel somewhere that’s celebrating something! Tourism Week (March/April) has replaced Holy Week in Uruguay, as a country with no official religion. As for a devoutly religious country, Italy always seems to be celebrating a saint’s day — The Feast of St. Mark takes place on April 25 in Venice, and features boat races with gondoliers. Same goes for India — days of religious observance pepper the calendar throughout the year, with many taking place in April. The city of Brasov, in Romania, officially welcomes spring with Junii (Feast of Youth) — including an elaborate horseback parade and weeklong feast around the Easter holiday season. You can even ring in the first day of summer, in April; it takes place on April 24 in Iceland.
 
Slideshow: 12 International Foods to Try Before You Die
 
I Miss Winter — This phrase may fall on deaf ears, but some people actually like winter — to the point where they want more than a few months of it. If you can’t get enough of the frozen wonderland, and don’t plan on visiting either of the poles, then perhaps the Antarctic Experience at museums in either London or New Zealand will satisfy the need for extreme wintry conditions. Outside of an artificial experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a traditional winter in spring in the northern hemisphere or fall in the southern hemisphere. Still, plenty of places in the world experience snow in April, and Scandinavia is one of them. Ski resorts thrive into spring in Norway, Sweden and Greenland, but mainly in high-altitude mountainous regions. As a bonus, the aurora borealis can still be witnessed throughout the month of April.
 
– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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 lush green landscapes.

Would you rather…

… soak in tropical hot springs in Costa Rica, or …

hot springs waterfall costa rica



… explore Bali’s verdant rice terraces?

rice field bali indonesia


As Elissa Leibowitz Poma writes in 12 Best Costa Rica Experiences, “Given its volcanic landscape, Costa Rica has quite a few natural hot springs and mud pools. Most are open to the public; independent travelers visiting small towns should ask around about hot springs on private property that you can get permission to access with a sweet smile and small ‘donation.’” In Bali, the rice terraces climbing the green hills make for striking photo ops. Some of the most beautiful are near the village of Tegallalang.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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!

lubeck germanyIn this month’s featured review, reader Lyn Hargreave describes a journey in which she aimed to experience Germany “as a traveler, not a tourist.”

She accomplished that through a cultural exchange organization called Friendship Force International: “Every night, we were treated to dinner in different homes, as we were previously during our stay near Hamburg. Our hosts planned and showed us what we asked to see. So easy! No cars to rent, no train schedules to hassle with. The hospitality of new friends through Friendship Force International made this a warm and very personal experience. We now look forward to welcoming these new friends to our homes next year.”

Read the rest of Lyn’s review here: Germany Up Close and Personal. Lyn has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 scenic rides.

Would you rather…

… go kayaking in Milford Sound, New Zealand, or …

kayak kayaking milford sound new zealand



… take a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway in California?

pacific coast highway california


Milford Sound (actually a fjord) is one of the most popular attractions on New Zealand’s South Island, but most visitors see it via a small cruise ship rather than on a more intimate kayaking journey. (Intrigued? Roscoe’s Milford Kayaks is one local operator.) If driving is more your speed, you can’t beat the Pacific Coast Highway for sweet scenery along the California coast.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week marks the debut of another new travel puzzle: a “guess the flag” challenge. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 24, 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 Bonnie, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Azerbaijan. Bonnie has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

bangkok skytrainWe all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.

Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.

But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.

Miami, Florida
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.

Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.

Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.

Train Travel Deals Around the World

Bangkok, Thailand
This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.

Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).

Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.

San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).

Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.

Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).

St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).

Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.

Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.

Top Tips for Fighting Jet Lag

Seattle, Washington
Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.

Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).

Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

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 holidays being celebrated today, March 17.

Would you rather…

… join the St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Ireland, or …

st patrick's day parade cork ireland



… throw brightly colored powder to celebrate Holi in India?

holi festival india


St. Patrick’s Day, which honors the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated with parades, green clothing and the odd drink or two by the Irish diaspora around the world. Holi is a Hindu festival that honors the coming of spring with frolicking and the flinging of colorful powder; it’s observed primarily in India and other South Asian nations.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter