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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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!

hot water beach poolIn this month’s winning review, a traveler discovers New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula during the winter off season. “Hot Water Beach is famous for its underground hot springs that can filter up through the sand at low tide,” writes Lauren Meeks. “Visitors from all over the world bring shovels and try to time their digging so that they’ve built up their little pool right around the time that low tide is reached, so that they can sit and enjoy their very own homemade sauna. The pictures in the tourist brochure definitely promise big things … the reality for us was a bit different.”

Read the rest of Lauren’s review here: Exploring the Coromandel Peninsula. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

March 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Hoover Dam — the engineering marvel on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. Aside from its primary job of preventing floods and providing water to millions of people, the Hoover Dam is also a major tourist attraction. Some 7 million visitors tour the dam annually.

hoover dam


Aside from the Hoover Dam — which, in my opinion, is far more interesting than actually spending time in nearby Las Vegas — here are five other dams that are attractive to travelers:

Luzzone Dam, Switzerland: Adventurists flock to this high-altitude, 540-foot-tall dam on the Swiss-Italian border for one reason: to conquer one of the world’s tallest artificial climbing walls. A German company affixed one side of the dam with hundreds of climbing bolts and holds. The YouTube video below shows what the acrophobic climbing experience is like.


Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, U.S.: Nightly summertime laser light shows projected onto the dam’s wall make Grand Coulee, about 1.5 hours from Spokane, a fun destination for travelers. The surrounding Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is popular for boating, swimming and camping. The free light shows run from Memorial Day through September 30 each year.

Aswan High Dam, Egypt: Threatened by floods, more than 20 temples in the vicinity of Lake Nasser had to be removed and painstakingly rebuilt elsewhere to make way for this Nile River dam system, which controls flooding. UNESCO supervised the moves, and several of the temples were relocated to other countries that supported the effort. The best known is the Temple of Dendur, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

grand dixence dam


Grande Dixence Dam, Switzerland: Another high-altitude Swiss dam, this one, in the Val d’Herens Valley, is a popular starting point for hikers. This is considered the world’s highest gravity dam, and its reservoir is completely fed by melting water from 35 glaciers. Guided tours and cable car rides are available.

Almendra Dam, Spain: Also called the Villarino Dam, the Alemendra Dam is one of Spain’s tallest manmade structures at 663 feet high. It provides hydroelectric power to a great wine-growing region known as the Douro River Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth a quick photographic detour when visiting the charming university town of Salamanca.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens
The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

cuban flag trinidad cubaFor Americans, taking a trip to Cuba got a little easier on Tuesday, when the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to reinstate commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in more than a half-century. Yahoo! News reports that up to 110 daily flights will be permitted between the U.S. and 10 different airports in Cuba, with 20 of those going to Havana. Before this agreement Americans could only fly to Cuba from the U.S. aboard charter flights or by connecting in another country such as Canada or Mexico.

The new flights aren’t available just yet, but odds are that your favorite airline is interested in offering them. According to USA Today, most of the major U.S. airlines have expressed their intent to apply for flights to Cuba, including American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Spirit. Southwest and Alaska are considering putting in bids as well.

Per Yahoo! News, the airlines have about two weeks to submit their applications, and we should find out which flights will be available within about six months.

Americans should keep in mind that visits to Cuba for simple “touristic” purposes are still not permitted — so if you’re dreaming of wandering freely around Havana or lying on a beach in Varadero, tap the brakes. Even after commercial flights are in place, you’ll still need to verify that you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 purposes permitted by the U.S. government, including “educational activities” and “support for the Cuban people.” (You can find the full list at Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For now, the easiest way to visit Cuba is still to travel with a group such as Intrepid Travel, smarTours, Insight Cuba or Cuba Explorer, all of which offer government-compliant itineraries and will arrange charter flights for you.

Havana Travel Guide
A Walking Tour of Old Havana
People to People: Why You Might NOT Want to Visit Cuba Independently

— 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!

lisieux In this month’s winning review, a traveler to France mixed visits to religious sites (such as shrines and convents) with secular experiences (such as a boat ride on the Seine). “Upon arrival in Lisieux, we had some down time before we were taken to the Basilica of St. Therese for our opening Mass in a chapel; then we were able to tour the basilica and grounds plus go into the gift shop after Mass was done,” writes Janet Marie. “It was amazing to see all of the various artwork and photos related to St. Therese. To be there was a true blessing, and something I wanted to experience as St. Therese is my favorite saint.”

Read the rest of Janet Marie’s review here: Catholic and Secular France Pilgrimage/Trip. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.

longyearbyen svalbard


Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.

ice zodiac svalbard norway


From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.

Photos: 9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

polar bear churchill manitoba


Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.

Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.

churchill manitoba sunset


The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.

11 Best Canada Experiences

grand teton national park wyoming


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.

Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.

National Park Vacations

birds in alaska


Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

What are your favorite cold-weather destinations? Post them in the comments below.

— written and photographed by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Grenada, Micronesia, Tuvalu and Samoa are among the most forward-thinking and ethical travel destinations in the world, according to a California-based tourism nonprofit. In fact, seven out of the top 10 destinations making the biggest strides in environmental protection, social welfare, human rights and animal welfare are islands.

Each year, an all-volunteer cast from an organization called Ethical Traveler does a deep dive into the policies and practices of countries in the developing world. The team then selects the nations that are making the most progress in protecting their environment and their people. The winners must also be attractive travel destinations, offering “unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.”

apia samoa beach boats


The full list of 2016 winners, in alphabetical order:

– Cabo Verde
Dominica
– Grenada
– Micronesia
– Mongolia
Panama
– Samoa
– Tonga
– Tuvalu
Uruguay

Why so many islands? “Climate change affects islands dramatically, so they tend to be very aware of the importance of effective environmental policies,” the report said.

Green Travel Tips

Panama was praised for escalating its reforestation efforts and for low unemployment rates. Cabo Verde in Africa is seeing more women holding high-ranking leadership positions. The Caribbean island of Dominica provides widespread free healthcare to its citizens and works to protect the marine life along its coast.

mongolia herder eagle


Uruguay gets 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and has made education of children a priority. And in Mongolia, a half-million people — including 70 percent of all herders — use solar energy.

Acknowledging that “no country is perfect,” Ethical Traveler notes nonetheless that visiting the winning countries allows travelers to use economic leverage to reward good practices.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
Find Your Ideal Island Escape

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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!

moscow metro station 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.

saona island beach boat 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.

borneo orangutans


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.

maldives beach


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.

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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

stefanie payne jonathan irish bryce canyon national parkStefanie 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?
colorado river grand canyonSP:
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.

National Park Vacations
Less Traveled National Parks

–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

pedralbes monastery cloister barcelona


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.

pedralbes monastery fresco barcelona


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