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Snow may be lingering in the forecast, but spring is fighting its way into the air. Soon there will be something to show for it, when plants begin to bloom from every nook in the seasonally halcyon days of histamine.

Among the fragrant indicators of warmer weather, none is as iconic as the cherry blossom tree. A Japanese tradition, cherry blossom or sakura festivals take place each spring when the trees reach peak bloom (typically in early April). This became a U.S. tradition over a century ago, when Japan gifted us with more than 2,000 trees as a symbol of friendship and good will in 1912, and 3,800 more in 1965. Since then, cherry blossom tourists have primarily flocked to our nation’s capital, where these trees flaunt their annual pinks and whites.

While Washington D.C.‘s National Cherry Blossom Festival is a gorgeous spring display and celebration of international relations, it’s not the only festival of its kind. In fact, it’s not even the largest in the country. Check out these four alternative cherry blossom festivals living in its shadow; you may be surprised by their locations.

branch brook newark new jersey cherry blossom essex county


Branch Brook Park: Newark, NJ
With more than 4,300 trees to its name, Branch Brook Park — in the unlikely city of Newark, New Jersey — is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossoms. It’s the Garden State, after all! Each April, more than 10,000 people gather in the Essex County park for its spring festival of events including a 10K run, a bike race and Bloomfest, which hosts Japanese cultural demonstrations, food, music, a crafter’s marketplace and plenty of children’s activities. The grounds are sprawling, so it’s the perfect setting for a picnic — or hanami — under the pink awning of the trees. This year’s events kick off on April 5 and culminate with Bloomfest on April 13.

Macon Georgia cherry blossom festival carriage children


International Cherry Blossom Festival: Macon, GA
The self-proclaimed cherry blossom capital of the world, Macon, Georgia, is host to a number of year-round events celebrating the cherry blossom, in addition to its annual international festival and parade. With a whopping 300,000 – 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees around Macon, it’s no wonder the town revels in all things cherry tree — they can’t escape them! Riding tours like the Cherry Blossom Express offer relaxing tree-peeping trips as you visit the most unique places around Macon. For a bit more excitement, check out the Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale, which caps off the festival’s celebrations. There are a number of events scheduled this year, but the parade takes place on March 23 and the season concludes with the fireworks finale on April 5.

Photo used and shared under the following license: GNU Free Documentation License. Original photo copyright Wikimedia Commons user Macondude.

shinto shrine pond brooklyn botanical cherry blossom


Sakura Park/Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: New York City, NY
Many people recognize Washington D.C. as the home to Japan’s generous gift of cherry blossom trees, but not as recognized are the 2,000 trees from the same gift living in a small park in Manhattan. Sakura Park isn’t host to any huge parades or festivals, but blooms quietly each spring along the northern tip of Morningside Heights. Close to Grant’s Tomb, it’s in a peaceful and historic section of the city, making it the perfect escape for urbanites on a springtime afternoon.

Nearby, a tree grows in Brooklyn — well, make that multiple trees. The cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden includes a Shinto shrine and pond. Sakura Matsuri is the BBG’s annual cherry blossom festival that offers more than 60 events and performances celebrating both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The festival is typically in late spring, as it marks the end of the cherry blossom season. This year’s events take place April 26 and 27.

geese schuylkill river cherry blossom philadelphia


Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA
Encouraging you to “visit Japan without leaving Philly,” the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia is host to the area’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, a collection of Japanese music, art, food and culture, right in the City of Brotherly Love. Events and demonstrations span martial arts, flower arranging and even a sushi competition. With cherry blossoms as the backdrop, immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a Dine Out Japan restaurant week and taiko drum performances. All the festivities lead up to Sakura Sunday, held at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. This year’s events begin on April 2 and conclude on April 13.

For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

– 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 “true blue” experiences.

Would you rather…

… explore the historic medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco, or …

chefchaouen morocco medina blue



… bathe in the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland?

blue lagoon reykjavik


The mountain village of Chefchaouen, in northeastern Morocco, is famous for its picture-perfect blue architecture. Meanwhile, the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, fed with hot mineral water from beneath the earth’s surface, is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions.

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 streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
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 spectacular religious landmarks.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or …

hagia sophia istanbul



… wander the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia?

ta prohm angkor cambodia


No matter your own spiritual leanings, religious buildings such as cathedrals, temples and mosques are some of the world’s most spectacular buildings. As we write in our Istanbul travel guide, the Hagia Sophia was “once a church, then a mosque, [and] was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded.” Angkor, Cambodia, is home to a number of Hindu and Buddhist Temples dating back to the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th centuries).

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cuba cruiseOn my second night onboard the Canada-based Cuba Cruise, the first cruise line to offer sailings around the island, Captain Stathis Goumas added a caveat to his welcome speech that resonated with all of us onboard:

“If you want to experience a typical Caribbean cruise, then you have come on the wrong ship. Is that what you’d like?” he asked us. A chorus of “No!”

He went on: “Don’t expect cruise ship tourism that you might have experienced in other parts of the Caribbean: We’re leaving 2014, and stepping back to the 1950s.”

And so it has proved, just a few days in to my seven-night trip. The town of Antilla has nothing at the port, one tin shack which acts as the passport office, a disused gangway and the remains of another one, storks sitting on the exposed posts.

As we arrive from our tender, we’re met by a band of local musicians playing traditional Cuban music (“Guantanamera” is the crowd pleaser, but other tunes also make an appearance, including ones by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who was from this area).

Read Cuba Trip Reviews

We’re bundled into buses from Cubanacan — the state tourist organization — and driven off to our various excursions. In an hour and a half we pass maybe five cars, a truck, a school bus and a tourist bus or two. The primary means of transport is horse-drawn cart or donkey.

And yet: front porches are immaculate. There is no sign of rubbish anywhere. Kids are smartly dressed in school uniform. The villages we drive through seem lively; people wave as we drive by.

It’s a landscape of sugarcane, much like Jamaica, and that’s the primary source of income around these parts. We learn that up until the mid-90s the sugarcane was transported around the island by steam train. It’s a far cry from Havana, that’s for sure.

Cuba Cruise, which leases Louis Cristal ship from Louis Cruises, is the very first cruise line to offer such a service in this mysterious country. It’s such a significant development for Cuba’s tourism that Fidel Castro’s son was invited onboard for dinner as guest of honor on our first evening, before we departed Havana.

I’ve learned that Cuba Cruise tried something similar five years ago, but too much red tape prevented it from happening. Launching an operation like this is always going to have its challenges. The biggest is perhaps the most obvious: you can’t source the biggest cruise market in the world, and the one on your doorstep: the United States.

Instead Cuba Cruise has concentrated on Canada, Europe and the Far East, and onboard we have mainly Canadians, Koreans, Chinese and then a smattering of Europeans — Brits, French, Germans, Greeks and Italians. There is also a U.S. educational group and two U.S. citizens, who got on in Jamaica’s Montego Bay and wish to remain nameless.

So far, everyone we’ve met on our tours is welcoming. There’s no hint of the weariness that you notice in other Caribbean destinations: instead there’s a charm, and a real sense of gratefulness that we have chosen to visit here.

Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

The areas that we go to are not traditional Cuba, and could leave you with a poor impression if you were on a more common all-inclusive land vacation. Take Guardalavaca Beach, which has an all-inclusive resort and a slightly tacky flea market. This area was first developed for tourism back in the 1960s, when Cuba welcomed Russians from the former Soviet Union, and many Soviet-era apartment blocks and the two main hotels were built to cater for the influx.

cuba farmer car cigarLuckily Cuba Cruise has made some adjustments to get us beyond the obvious. Our final stop is the one I will remember: a traditional farm, where we stroll through the farmer’s banana plantation, suck on sugarcane pulled from the ground and eat a sweet banana, before enjoying a local snack and a strong coffee.

The farmer keeps a Plymouth car from 1948 in his garage and assures us that he still drives it every day from his house to the market and back. To prove the point he starts up the engine and poses beside it, chomping a fat cigar.

It’s quite overwhelming. But if you’re intrigued, hurry up and go; it’s changing as you read this.

– written by Adam Coulter

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!

svartifoss waterfall icelandIn this month’s featured review, reader Shannon Colman names five places any visitor to Iceland should check out — as well as one to skip. On her must-see list is a waterfall in Skaftafell National Park: “The most spectacular thing about Svartifoss is the structure of the basalt columns behind the water — their rigidness evokes a sense of formality and order,” wrote Shannon. “I described them as resembling the pipes on an organ at a funeral, sitting in position, ready to release their morbid tones.”

Read the rest of Shannon’s review here: 5 Must-Dos in Iceland. Shannon 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 warm-weather adventures.

Would you rather…

… hike to a secret waterfall in Kauai, Hawaii, or …

kauai waterfall



… go snorkeling in Tahiti?

snorkel snorkeling tahiti


Here in the Northeast, we’re sick of ice and snow — which is why we chose two warm-weather experiences for this week. The first picture captures one of the many waterfalls on the Hawaiian isle of Kauai; known as the Garden Island, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers. In the second photo are snorkelers enjoying the unspoiled undersea landscape off the coast of Tahiti.

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 scrumptious sweets.

Would you rather…

… try baklava in Turkey, or …

baklava turkey



… enjoy a mooncake in China?

mooncake china tea


Baklava is a popular dessert in Turkey, Greece, and other countries in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Phyllo dough is stuffed with chopped nuts and drizzled with honey. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, accompanied by a cup of tea. They’re made of lotus seed or sweet bean paste, along with lard and egg yolk — a delicious but calorie-rich treat.

Tell us 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 larger-than-life attractions.

Would you rather…

… travel to Utah to see the red rock formations of Monument Valley, or …

antarctica penguins



… gaze up in awe at the massive stone heads of Easter Island?

polar bears arctic canada


Tell us your preference in the comments below!

Nine Easy Hikes That Will Take Your Breath Away

– written by Dori Saltzman

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!

segovia aqueduct spainIn this month’s featured review, reader Betsy Lubis shares her memories of a three-week trip through Spain. “Impressions of and experiences in Segovia: a) beautiful setting tucked between arid hills, b) Alcazar, Roman Wall, aqueduct, all quite impressive, c) the ponche segoviano (marzipan) cake at Limon and Menta was the best part of our day and the best pastry we’d eat on the entire trip, d) dinner at a pizza place with kids playing in a ball pit, e) guys slathering up wall posters announcing a protest against a proposed golf course. ‘Golf is only for rich men,’ one of them informed us. And, golf wastes water in a country running out of water, their sign proclaimed.”

Read the rest of Betsy’s review here: 21 Days of Spain. Betsy has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter