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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 experiences that will put you in a “purple haze.”

Would you rather…

… wander through lavender fields in Provence, France, or …

lavender field provence france



… see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at sunset?

imperial palace tokyo japan


The Provence region of France is well known for its sweet-smelling lavender fields, which bloom throughout the summer months (usually peaking in July). The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is home to the Emperor of Japan; on the grounds are a museum, gardens, a moat and the remains of Edo Castle.

12 Best Japan Experiences

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 that will get you up close and personal with unique marine wildlife.

Would you rather…

… snorkel or dive with green sea turtles in Bonaire, or …

green sea turtle bonaire underwater



… go whale watching in South Africa?

whale hermanus south africa


The southern Caribbean island of Bonaire is one of the world’s best spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. Along with green sea turtles, you may also see garden eels, frogfish, parrot fish, rays, whale sharks and much more. In South Africa, you’ll see the biggest marine animals of them all: whales! Visit between June and November to see migrating southern right whales; humpbacks and Bryde’s whales can also be spotted at select times of year.

Photos: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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!

houses, ice




Hint: It may not look it, but it’s springtime in this colorful country. Can you guess which?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 9, 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 Jennifer Parry, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Greenland. Jennifer has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

cabo san lucasNot every destination makes a stellar first impression. Misunderstandings happen, plans fall through, expectations are dashed. And nowhere in recent memory did I find that truer than in Cabo San Lucas.

I had high hopes before I arrived in this happening resort town on the Mexican Riviera. As a celebrity magazine addict, I knew that Cabo was considered the perfect spot for A-listers to blow off steam: Justin Timberlake plays golf there, George Clooney celebrates birthdays, the Kardashians do what Kardashians do. Jennifer Aniston comes so often that she might as well be on the tourist brochure.

But I forgot that they don’t go where I went, which, unfortunately, was straight to Medano Beach. I knew from the moment I arrived at a popular beachfront restaurant there that I had chosen … poorly.

I ordered a margarita, singular. Little did I know this was an impossible request in Cabo. A waiter arrived bearing two aquarium-sized glasses. “No, no, just one,” I told him nicely.

“No, lady. Two is better!” he replied. We went back and forth over my request for a while, until he finally took the unsolicited beverage away. (At that point, I was so irritated by his persistent upselling that I almost needed the second drink.)

That wasn’t the end to the Medano madness. Within a few hours, I was hassled by timeshare salesmen, encouraged to smile by water taxi drivers and offered illegal drugs. I saw more ugly tattoos than on an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and it wasn’t even spring break. The last straw came when I slipped on one of Cabo’s steeper streets, landing firmly on my rear.

“I hate Cabo,” I texted to my husband.

Luckily, I had time for a do-over; subsequent days there exposed me to the city’s first-class adventure opportunities, including kayaking and snorkeling with Baja Outback, parasailing with Cabo Expeditions and a camel safari with Cabo Adventures (yes, camels! It’s become the company’s number one excursion). I even found some great places to go on Medano to escape the nuttiness free-for-all, including Nikki Beach (for those who like Miami style) and Tabasco Beach (for those who like feet-in-the-sand style). I have a list of things to do if and when I come back, including visits to San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos and a deep-water fishing excursion.

Learn More About Mexico

But the experience made me think about the best ways to handle a new destination if it isn’t exactly what you expected:

Switch gears: The best thing I could have done after the margarita skirmish was hightail it out of Medano on a water taxi to the Marina, a less pushy part of the city. If you’re in a neighborhood that’s rubbing you the wrong way, try another one — stat.

Blow off steam: Zip-lining wasn’t what you expected? Don’t stomp back to the hotel angrily. If time allows, walk around, do some shopping or enjoy a snack at an establishment that looks more your speed. Being able to calm down and look at the situation with some distance will usually turn it into an amusing memory rather than a trip-wrecking horror.

Conduct a post-mortem, part I: That night, make the effort to talk to a few fellow travelers, either at your hotel or a local bar. What have they done that you haven’t? Swapping stories means you can unearth valuable intel that may allow you to make out better the next day.

Conduct a post-mortem, part II: Once you’re home, go online and see if others have had your experience. (Our forums are a great place to chat with other travelers.) Did they have the same issues you did, or did you just happen to catch that attraction or neighborhood on a bad day? Keep in mind that factors like weather, local strikes and staff turnover can vary the experience significantly.

When Destinations Disappoint

Maybe it’s you. We all have bad days. Maybe you’re not feeling well, or maybe your travel companions are working your last nerve. If you set out for the day with a monster chip on your shoulder, don’t be surprised if the slightest thing knocks it off — and really, who’s to blame for that but yourself?

Tell us! How have you salvaged a poor experience in a new destination?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

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 delicious light bites.

Would you rather…

… nibble on fresh spring rolls in Vietnam, or …

spring rolls vietnam



… nosh on tapas in Spain?

spanish tapas spain


Wrapped in delicate rice paper and stuffed with a tasty mix of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon and either pork or shrimp, spring rolls are a must-try when visiting Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, tapas encompass a range of bite-size appetizers or snacks in Spain, ranging from fried squid to cured cheese topped with anchovies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
Beyond Restaurants: 8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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!

halong bay kayak kayaking vietnamIn this month’s featured review, reader Brian W Fisher describes an unforgettable experience in Vietnam. “Ha Long Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the up-thrusting limestone karsts hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves and hidden lagoons that can only be reached by small craft navigating through breaks in the karsts — and only at low tide,” says Brian. “From a wooden jetty at a floating village, we changed craft … either into two-person kayaks or flat-bottomed boats, small enough to enter the low openings in the cliffs and emerge into fully enclosed lagoons. Quite magical!”

Read the rest of Brian’s review here: Up and Down in Vietnam. Brian has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

nile river egyptThe last time I was in Egypt, the most popular tourist stretch of the Nile between Luxor and the Aswan High Dam was a nonstop bustling waterway populated by small sailboats, working barges and river cruise vessels.

The scene from my vantage point on the sun deck of MS Grand Rose tells a very different story. There are more than 250 passenger ships licensed to sail on the Nile, but at present only about 30 are in operation. The majority lie idle, moored up to five abreast with their doors locked or inhabited by solitary watchmen.

Tourism used to account for 11 percent of the Egyptian economy, but Arab Spring took a heavy toll. River cruising in particular was hit hard. Between 2010 and 2012, the total number of U.K. passengers cruising the Nile fell by more than half, from 58,000 to 28,000 (and there are far fewer Americans).

In 2013, the number of U.K. passengers dropped to a mere 12,200, which was due to tourists being advised against all but essential travel to most parts of Egypt during the peak summer holiday season. This has since been lifted.

The U.S. State Department has a travel alert in place, and warns travelers that political unrest is likely to continue in the future. In particular, the government advocates avoiding travel to the Sinai Peninsula, where a bomb was detonated on a tourist bus, killing four people in Taba (which is near the Israeli border, far from the Nile Valley).

The State Department also urges visitors to avoid any demonstrations, “as even peaceful ones can turn violent.” The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is within a few blocks of Tahir Square, and occasionally has to close when protests occur.

In short, Egypt is unpredictable.

Visitors are coming back to Egypt, though it’s more of a trickle than a flood on the Nile at the moment — and involves few Americans.

9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Grand Rose, the ship I am on, is an all-inclusive ship that will be exclusively sold to the British market when tourism picks up. My fellow passengers — mostly Brits and Germans — on the seven-night Luxor roundtrip cruise have no qualms about returning or visiting for the first time, particularly with the added benefit of tempting fares. On our excursions, we meet Europeans and a smattering of Chinese and other visitors from further afield.

The welcome we receive is as warm as the sunshine, with low-paid locals desperate to see the tourists come back. I speak to carriage drivers waiting patiently outside the ship who tell me their livelihoods virtually dried up overnight.

While the hassle from hawkers, the ensuing obligatory haggling and demands for tips for everything from taking a photo to handing out sheets of toilet paper is light-hearted, it is also tiring. There are some things in Egypt that never change, and the relentless pestering was just as I remembered it last time around. I felt sorry for some of the vendors, but if they just left tourists alone — particularly the Brits who love to browse — they would sell far more.

The next day, we drive past lush fields and sugarcane plantations irrigated by the Nile to reach the Valley of the Kings, dug deep into the desert mountains and dating back to the 11th century B.C. It contains the tombs of the pharaohs, most famously Tutankhamun, whose burial chamber was unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. A few years ago this would have been full — today there are only a handful of other tour groups are visiting the sun-baked valley.

Next stop is the newly opened replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb on the grounds of Howard Carter’s former home. Originally I wondered why people would want to see a facsimile when they can see the real thing. Then I was told that the boy king’s burial chamber is being damaged by humidity and the thousands of tourists who have filed through over the years, so much so that many experts have called for it to be closed. The re-creation is a meticulous copy and, having seen both, I feel as if I am in the real thing. It’s also much more accessible for anyone with mobility issues and can be combined with a visit to the house, left just as it was in Carter’s time.

We sail out of Luxor past the imperious facade of the 19th-century Winter Palace, once a retreat for the Egyptian royal family and now a “grande dame” hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote her 1937 novel “Death on the Nile.”

Read Egypt Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

As Egypt turns the page onto the next chapter of its long history, I am glad to be back. As long as you’re an adventurous traveler comfortable with a changeable and potentially volatile political landscape, now is a great time to go. You get to explore ancient sites and walk past towering statues with hardly anyone else around.

In spite of its recent difficulties and an uncertain political future, Egypt has withstood the test of time. Its history brings in the tourists, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

Would you travel to Egypt right now?

– written by Jeannine Williamson

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 unique, almost otherworldly landscapes.

Would you rather…

… see the one-of-a-kind baobab trees in Madagascar, or …

baobab trees madagascar



… hike to the Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand?

emerland lake tongariro national park new zealand


Madagascar is home to several endemic species of baobab trees, which can live up to 800 years. The best place to see them is the Avenue of the Baobabs in Toliara Province, where a cluster of trees makes for striking photos (especially at sunset). A show-stopping view of the Emerald Lakes is the reward for completing the daylong Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes. The trip takes seven to nine hours on average.

13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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!

underwater, sculpture


Hint: This sculpture garden is renowned for its scenic diving and unique underwater inhabitants.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 19, 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 Margot Wilson, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park. Margot has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel