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Last month, we gave our readers a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card by submitting a review of a recent trip. We loved reading their submissions, which inspired us with tales of volunteering with elephants in Sri Lanka, cruising around the Mediterranean and tasting wine in South Africa.

hallgrimskirkja blue lagoon reykjavik iceland


Deciding on the winner was hard, but in the end we chose Iceland: A Magical Mystery Tour by Sarah Eaton. Here’s an excerpt from her winning review:

“As we arrived at the secluded farm and looked up into the clear sky, glimmering with thousand of stars, the performance above us was extraordinary. Green lights seem to sway above us in a movement I can only compare to the inside of a lava lamp, slowly wavering across the night sky.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give away, we also wanted to recognize a few runners-up whose reviews are also well worth a read:

Anything for the Elephants! by TS Buchanan: ” Let me introduce Ranmenika. She’s a 40-year-old beauty (elephants can live as long as 80 years) who fell into a well when she was just six. … Ranmenika is currently one of seven elephants under the care of MEF.”

A Third Roman Christmas by Host Ciao: “I walked to visit the Pantheon and then on to Piazza Navona where I planned to wander the huge Christmas fair held there. What a sad sight I found! Instead of booths offering all kinds of food, Christmas decorations, Nativity set pieces, and games, I found exactly six booths of games and a merry-go-round. No one was trying to win a huge stuffed animal at the games or enjoying the ride. A few people were wandering around the famous fountain and only a few were at the restaurants that border much of the square.”

How to Spend Three Perfect Days in Cape Town by Rachael Taft: “Excuse me while I gush, but South African wine is to die for! I wish America would figure this out and stock more of it in regular stores! If you’re looking for a classic South African wine to try, the Pinotage (a red) is a great place to start.”

Two Weeks on the Mediterranean: The Vision of the Seas by Justin Boot: “Montenegro took me by surprise in the best way. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most naturally beautiful and serene places I’ve ever seen. Coming from someone that lives in California and has been to Hawaii multiple times, that’s really saying something. The cruise ship had to navigate a narrow inlet for over an hour, passing by numerous small villages and hills that gracefully sloped up into mountain ranges. The water was clean, calm, and looked almost like a perfect mirror. It’s as if we’d somehow traveled back in time, to a medieval European era.”

Feeling inspired? Write a review of your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

With the U.S. National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, national parks are in the spotlight — not just here in the States but around the world. We love national parks because they protect a country’s natural scenery and unique wildlife for all of us to enjoy, whether you’re driving through in a car, hiking a trail or camping in the backcountry. Check out these six national parks we want to visit around the world.

grand teton national park


Grand Teton National Park, U.S.A., offers magnificent mountain vistas.

elephants in etosha national park


On safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, you’ll spy lions, elephants, zebras and much more.

waterfall lamington national park


Located in Queensland, Australia, Lamington National Park encompasses miles of lush rain forest.

horses torres del paine


Torres del Paine National Park protects some of Patagonian Chile’s most stunning landscapes.

komodo dragon


Komodo National Park in Indonesia is home to the endangered Komodo dragon, along with a variety of marine wildlife.

northeast greenland national park



Northeast Greenland National Park is the world’s biggest national park, but it’s so difficult to reach that very few people actually visit it.

Planning an African Safari
National Park Vacations

Which national park tops your must-visit list?

— 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: This mosque is currently the site of the world’s tallest minaret.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 16, 2016, 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 prize. 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 Wendell Prins, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Wendell has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

woman riding elephant sri lanka


In this month’s winning review, a traveler has a life-changing volunteer experience at Sri Lanka’s Millennium Elephant Foundation. “It’s 7:00 in the morning,” writes TS Buchanan. “It’s 35 degrees [Celsius] already, the sweat is pouring off me and I’m shoveling crap. Literally … shovelling crap. But not just any crap, I’m shovelling elephant dung. And I’m having the time of my life!”

Read the rest of TS Buchanan’s review here: Anything for the Elephants! This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review! Submit your review by May 11, and you could win a $50 Amazon gift card!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s a marine biologist in Sicily named Emilio who is as fond of studying sea creatures as he is of cooking them. His house is in a seaside village called Torretta Granitola, and when he’s not crunching numbers in the lab, he’s in the kitchen, whipping up dishes with the fish he catches and with ingredients from local farms.

pasta italy


Wild asparagus omelets. Fava beans and artichokes cooked in a clay pot. Fresh sheep cheese and croutons made of locally made rye bread.

Dinner at Emilio’s sounds like a dream.

Now, thanks to a new website called My Italian Friends, you can pull up a chair at Emilio’s patio dining table and spend three hours savoring one of his home-cooked meals. Or you can book a spot in a home restaurant in a different Italian city — Rome, Milan and Perugia among them.

My Italian Friends is the perfect solution for travelers who get weary of dining in restaurants for every meal. The website allows you to reserve a meal in a local Italian home, viewing the menu, location and background of the home cook before you book. The website also lists cooking classes, if you prefer to learn to hand-roll your own pasta rather than have it served to you, and foodie tours, such as an escorted visit to Florence’s main market.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

The site only recently launched, yet already has dozen of listings. They are widely distributed throughout Italy, and the hosts seem welcoming and intent on providing good food and good conversation. They list sample menus, but you can make requests (and note allergies or dietary restrictions) when you book.
Some hosts provide additional services, such as rides to and from public transport and walking tours of the area.

The website offers a range of experiences and range of prices. We spotted a pasta dinner in Rome for 18 euros (about $20.50 USD), and a truffle-hunting expedition in the medieval town of Gubbio with an expert guide named Danilo and his trusty dog for 172 euros ($196 — includes lunch and a guided tour). The four-course meal at Emilio’s house, including wine, is 29 euros per person ($33). Some home cooks provide discounts on select dates.

To learn about other websites offering meals in local homes, see Beyond Restaurants: Eight Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene.

Like This Story? Get More Travel Tips in Our Newsletter!

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

A young British gal caused quite a stir in the mid-1800s when she finally admitted that she, a mere female, was the author of the popular book “Jane Eyre,” not the man whose pen name she had assumed. The book then landed on everyone’s must-read list, and novelist and poet Charlotte Bronte became a massive success.

bronte parsonage museum haworth england


In just a couple of weeks, England — and all of the literary world — will mark the 200th birthday of Charlotte Bronte. Here are a few spots that were important in her life, many of which will be commemorating the anniversary on April 21:

Thornton, England: Most of the Bronte children, including Charlotte, were born in the village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England, at 74 Market Street. Visitors can see remains of the chapel where Charlotte’s father preached just opposite the village’s current church on Thornton Road.

Haworth, England: When the Bronte sisters grew up in Haworth, a village in Northern England, it was a congested industrial town where most residents barely survived into their mid-20s. Today Haworth is a charming mountain village that celebrates the lives of its most famous family. The surrounding region is now nicknamed Bronte Country, and their home is now the Bronte Parsonage Museum, run by the Bronte Society, one of the oldest literary societies in the world. A special exhibit commemorating the anniversary opened in February.

New York, United States: If you don’t have the opportunity to see the special Bronte exhibit at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, you can learn about her life and work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which will host “Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will” from September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017.

Banagher, Ireland: Charlotte and her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, didn’t venture too far for their honeymoon. They spent it among the bogs and castles of Banagher, in County Offaly in the Irish midlands.

Brussels, Belgium: Charlotte lived in Brussels twice, both times working as a schoolteacher. She resided at an ordinary pension on the Rue d’Isabelle. Nothing remains of the original structure, but an arts center called the Palais des Beaux Arts commemorates the site with a plaque. And nearby are remnants of cobblestone streets that Charlotte and her sister Emily once walked.

London, England: The Brontes had one brother, Branwell, and he fancied himself an artist. He created a portrait of Charlotte with sisters Emily and Anne — a piece that was folded and hidden in a wardrobe. The National Portrait Gallery obtained the piece and is displaying it, along with other works of art, in the exhibit “Celebrating Charlotte Bronte.”

9 Great Authors and the Places That Shaped Them
Photos: 13 Best England Experiences

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Catch up on the most interesting travel pieces you may have missed this week.

street in trinidad cuba


Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined
In this incisive op-ed for Flood Magazine, a Cuban writer challenges the widespread view of Cuba as a romanticized, “stuck in time” destination that’s going to be ruined by a wave of mass tourism from the U.S. “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba?” Natalie Morales writes. “Running water? Available food? … Access to proper healthcare?” It’s a must-read for anyone interested in visiting Cuba and seeing what it’s truly like to live there. (Warning: There’s some colorful language.)

Meet a Traveler: Michael Palin, National Treasure on Loan to the World
Lonely Planet interviews comedy legend and frequent traveler Michael Palin, who sounds off on his favorite places around the world, the best souvenir he ever brought home and his most challenging travel experience (which involved tainted camel liver).

Inside the Radical Airline Cabins of the Future
Vogue offers an intriguing look at how airplanes might be designed in the future. Windowless cabins? Stackable sleeping pods? A small viewing bubble on top of the plane? Welcome to a brave new world.

In Praise of Small-Town Travel
National Geographic celebrates the pleasures of visiting towns and villages rather than just big cities, including the slower rhythms of life and the chance to connect with local people. The writer also recommends her favorite small towns on each continent.

Doctors Share What Really Happens When There’s an Emergency Mid-Flight
Conde Nast Traveler interviewed several medical professionals to gather these stories of in-flight emergencies. One doctor delivered a baby; another couldn’t save a patient but used the tragedy to petition the U.S. government for a requirement that all planes have defibrillators and expanded medical kits. (Fortunately for all of us, he was successful.)

Shhh! Take a Peek at 15 of the World’s Most Exquisite Libraries
Book lovers will swoon over this CNN slideshow featuring photos of incredible libraries around the world, from Spain to South Korea.

The Abandoned Mansions of Billionaires
BBC Travel takes us into the fascinating Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India, where a collection of opulent havelis (mansions) are falling into decay. Covered with magnificent frescoes, these buildings are only just starting to be preserved as museums or heritage hotels.

The Travel Industry Now Supports Nearly 10 Percent of World’s Jobs
Those of us who love to travel are in good company. Skift reports that more than a billion people traveled internationally last year, contributing to a tourism industry that provided jobs for one out of every 11 people worldwide.

Have a laugh over this week’s video from Jurys Inn, an Irish hotel chain, which has invented the “suvet” — a suit made of a hotel duvet. Looks pretty comfy!


— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

iceland ice cave


In this month’s winning review, a traveler explores Iceland’s natural beauty during a wintry off-season trip. “Inside the Ice Cave was AMAZING,” writes John Connaughton. “Beautiful blue ice, as well as some clear and some coated in white from the snow. We crawled further in to a second chamber where you could again stand up. We took a lot of pictures in the Ice Cave and this was the highlight of our trip.”

Read the rest of John’s review here: Our Iceland Trip in Detail. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We’re celebrating the start of spring by daydreaming about … what else? … travel. Feast your eyes along with us on these incredible spots to see spring flowers around the world.

netherlands tulips windmill


Tulip fields bloom each spring across the Netherlands.


flowering trees nami island south korea


Flowering trees line a path on Nami Island, South Korea.


poppies california coast


Poppies add a dash of color to the California coast.


lupines lake tekapo new zealand


Lupines create a vibrant carpet beside Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.


tuscany italy spring flowers


Tuscany’s rolling hills are blanketed with spring flowers.


jefferson memorial cherry blossoms washington dc


Cherry blossoms wreath the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.


Where should you travel this spring? Take our new quiz!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Discover the best travel articles you may have missed this week.

phnom penh


Visiting Phnom Penh: How I Finally Relaxed in a City That Scared Me
This compelling essay from Conde Nast Traveler explores a traveler’s experience in Phnom Penh, where she skipped the Killing Fields and instead went searching for Cambodia’s more hopeful present.

How to Get Compensated — Generously — for Delayed Flights and Dirty Hotel Rooms
Travel + Leisure profiles a new app called Service that will advocate on your behalf to get you reimbursed for snafus such as lost luggage, incorrect hotel charges and flight delays. (It’s not limited to travel either, so between trips you can use the app to do battle with your cable provider.)

In Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom to Myself
It’s unlikely that many of us will ever travel to Saudi Arabia, so it’s fascinating to see this in-depth look from the New York Times. The writer visits an island with only one hotel, explores pre-Islamic tombs and attends a local festival.

17 Incredibly Amazing Women Who Will Inspire You to Travel Solo at Least Once
BuzzFeed interviews 17 female travel bloggers about their best advice for traveling alone as a woman. “Waking up each day and thinking ‘I can go anywhere I want’ is one of the most incredible, liberating feelings a person can experience,” writes one blogger. We couldn’t agree more.

These Amazing Photos of Thailand Will Satisfy Your Wanderlust
If all you’re looking for today is to scroll through gorgeous pictures of exotic places, Rough Guides has your back with this photo essay. Dreamy!

Monotony and ‘Moments of Terror’ Mark Search for Flight 370
Nearly two years after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, both the fate of the plane and its location are still shrouded in mystery. This AP story captures the difficult and often tedious job of searching the ocean floor with sonar for the lost aircraft.

What It’s Like to Live on a Cruise Ship for 8 Years
Forget retiring in Florida — the Washington Post profiles an 87-year-old woman who’s spending her golden years on a cruise ship. Lee Wachtstetter began her life aboard Crystal Serenity a few years after her husband’s death.

New Senate Bill Proposes End to “Ridiculous” Airline Fees
Two Democratic senators have put forward a bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to prevent airlines from raising fees or charging prices that are “unreasonable or disproportional to the costs” of a service. Will the proposal ever make it into law? Here’s hoping.

This week’s stunning travel video will put the Philippines on your bucket list if it’s not already there. Do yourself a favor and view it in full screen.


— written by Sarah Schlichter