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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!

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

Editor’s Note: Carnival Corporation has announced that Fathom will cease operations in May 2017. However, passengers visiting Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic on any other Carnival ship will be able to take part in the impact activities first developed for Fathom.

If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.

Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.

rolling paper at repapel dominican republic


I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.

Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)

I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.

clay filters dominican republic fathom


My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.

Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.

In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.

Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.

Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.

Would you consider a Fathom cruise?

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

— 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!

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