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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.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— 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

Okay, so winter technically hasn’t even officially arrived yet — but we’re already getting sick of short, gray days and long, dark nights. And we’ve still got several months to go!

To cheer ourselves up on days like these, we naturally turn our thoughts to thoughts of travel. Today we’re mentally transporting ourselves to the following vibrant destinations as an escape from the dreary winter landscapes here at home.

burano italy


The charming little fishing village of Burano, located in the Venetian Lagoon, is painted every color of the rainbow.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

little india singapore


Get a taste of another culture in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, where you can visit a temple, browse bustling markets and nosh on authentic Indian dishes.

Singapore City Guide

keukenhof lisse netherlands tulips spring


Now is a perfect time to book a spring trip to see the magnificent Keukenhof gardens in Holland, which are only open for a couple of months a year.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens

trinidad cuba classic car


With its fascinating culture, vibrant cities and warm sunshine, Cuba will cure any case of the winter blahs.

A Walking Tour of Old Havana

Where are you planning to travel this winter? (And if you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz!)

— 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!

st michael's monastery kiev In this month’s winning review, a traveler enjoys an autumn trip to the capital of Ukraine, where she meets babushkas, visits monasteries and learns about recent political developments from a local guide. “Natasha … emotionally recalls the significant events and sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of the riot police,” writes Lesley Williamson. “Hundreds of these young men’s portraits are honored with flowers and candles and for Natasha, such a public tribute to the nation’s heroes is poignant evidence that Ukraine is changing and that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing itself with its own unique identity.”

Read the rest of Lesley’s review here: Kiev: golden domes, shimmering spires and bohemian spirits of freedom. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Dust off your floppy safari hat and polish your binoculars: Botswana is the hottest travel destination for 2016.

Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet selected the southern Africa safari destination as the No. 1 country to visit in 2016 in its annual Best in Travel survey. The list compiles the biggest travel trends, destinations, events and experiences in the world in the coming year.


Botswana topped the list because of its resplendent wildlife viewing. But it’s also celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence in 2016, making it one of Africa’s most thriving and stable nations. It’s “wild Africa at its best,” the Lonely Planet staff proclaimed.

Planning an African Safari

Other countries making the top five are Japan, the United States, Palau and Latvia.

The top-rated region for 2016 is Transylvania, Romania — not just for castles and vampire lore but also for wildlife watching and an up-and-coming art scene. Other top regions include West Iceland, the Valle de Vinales in Cuba, the Italian wine-producing region of Friuli and Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

The No. 1 city for 2016 is Kotor, Montenegro, which was touted for its gorgeous harbors. Other top cities include Quito, Ecuador, a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for being both relaxed and vibrant; Dublin, which has bounced back from the global recession; George Town, Malaysia, which is hot among foodies into the street vendor scene; and Rotterdam, Netherlands, which opened a humongous indoor food market last year.


On the “new openings in 2016” list are Disney’s first resort in China, a manmade surf lagoon in Wales and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The website has some other fun lists too, including best silent retreats (the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California), favorite final frontiers (the dense jungle-entwined Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama) and best luxe experiences for budget travelers (thermal baths in Iceland).

Where do you plan to travel in 2016?

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

dubai aerial viewLast month, we challenged our readers to review a recent trip for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. The submissions we received were fascinating, detailing journeys to the temples of Cambodia, the lakes of Slovenia and the remote reaches of the Grand Canyon.

Choosing the best review was difficult, but in the end we went with Adrienne Lee’s Dazzling Dubai. Here’s an excerpt:

“Since we arrived at night, the city was all lit up with mile after mile of sparkling skyscrapers that could only be described as dazzling. We used that word daily as we discovered the wonders that Dubai has to offer.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

Angkor Wat: Incredibly Spiritual and Moving by Amelia Hesson: “We visited [Ta Prohm] early in the morning before any other tourists visited, making it the most serene of all temples for us. It is called the King of Trees because it is in pristine untouched condition, covered with crumbling stones and over powering trees. This was a very large temple, almost as large as Angkor Wat, and has not been repaired at all. The only thing done to this magnificent temple has been to build wooden stairs around the temple, as well as stairs climbing up to the top and down to the depths of this most sacred place. We were blown away by its majesty and loved seeing it in its natural state of crumbling and dis-repair.”

The Grand Canyon’s Most Remote Village by vagabondginger: “While millions visit the Grand Canyon each year, only a few thousand make the trek to this smallest Indian nation in America. The only way to get there is on foot, by horse or by helicopter. These people have lived here over 800 years and at one time the tribe was forced by the US government to give up most of their land, but almost 100 years later much of it was regained even though it is now a National Park. Of the 650 member tribe 450 live here and are self governing and they do not receive any US government stipends. They now rely heavily on tourism although they seem to resent it. This is their home we are trekking into and they consider their land to be sacred.”

Walks of Lake Bled & Lake Bohinj, Slovenia by Susan Burger: “Lake Bohinj, with steep mountains projecting straight up from the edges, is located in the Triglav National Park, and is even more serene and natural than Lake Bled. We rode the cable car to the top of Mount Vogel for a panoramic view of the surrounding Julian Alps and Mount Triglav (9,400 ft), the highest peak in Slovenia. It is also a good starting point for hiking trails, including the Bohinj cheese trail which offers samples of the traditionally made cheese to hikers starting late June.”

Feeling inspired? Read more trip reviews or share advice from your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Thanks to the strengthening U.S. dollar and the weakening euro, trips across the pond are getting more affordable — which has many of us daydreaming about sipping espressos in Italy or listening to traditional music at a pub in Ireland. But which European cities are the biggest draw?

HomeAway, a vacation rental site listing homes and apartments around the world, recently answered that question for us. The company delved into its search data to find out which European cities generated the most vacation rental inquiries from Americans between July and September 2015. The winner: Paris, followed closely by Amsterdam.

eiffel tower flowers paris


HomeAway examined the booking preferences in nine different major metro areas around the United States, identifying the top two most requested European destinations in each. Paris was the top choice in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Seattle, while Amsterdam won out in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Rome was another popular pick, appearing second on the lists for three different U.S. markets (San Francisco, D.C. and Chicago).

There were a few outliers as well; New Yorkers and Philadelphians showed interest in Italy’s Amalfi Coast, while folks in Los Angeles, perhaps sick of all that sunshine, were hankering for a trip to Dublin.

It’s impossible to know for sure why certain destinations are more popular in some areas than others, but we suspect that the availability of affordable flights plays a role. For example, Boston’s number one pick was Reykjavik, and both Icelandair and WOW Air offer cheap nonstop flights there from Beantown. (Bostonians, take note: We found an incredible $374 roundtrip fare from WOW Air for an off-peak itinerary next month. Northern lights, anyone?)

Flights aside, it’s not hard to explain the popularity of Paris and Amsterdam, especially for vacation rentals. Imagine setting forth from your flat in Montmartre to pick up a freshly baked croissant from the patisserie on the corner, or parking your bike on your balcony after a day riding along Amsterdam’s canals. Yes, please!

canal bikes amsterdam


Check out HomeAway’s full list of popular cities below — and tell us which European destination you’d most like to visit.

New York Metro Area
1. Amsterdam
2. Amalfi Coast

Boston Metro Area
1. Reykjavik
2. Munich

Los Angeles Metro Area
1. Amsterdam
2. Dublin

San Francisco Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Rome

Washington D.C. Metro Area
1. Amsterdam
2. Rome

Chicago Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Rome

Philadelphia Metro Area
1. Amalfi Coast
2. Paris

Dallas/Fort Worth Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Amsterdam

Seattle Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Amsterdam

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

— 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!

south west coast path england In this month’s winning review, a pair of retirees enjoy hiking along the South West Coast Path on the Jurassic Coast of England — powering through some occasionally iffy weather. “Once we arrived at the Old Harry Rocks, we were completely drenched,” write Carolyn Boyle. “However, we needed to walk further along the path in the direction of Swanage to have better views of the cliffs, the rocks and other offshore chalk formations, such as the Pinnacles. Despite the deluge, the views were stunning.”

Read the rest of Carolyn’s review here: Hiking the South West Coast Path on the Jurassic Coast in England. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— 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: In addition to the contemporary cathedral pictured above (which was built in 2008), this city is home to a children’s “fairy land” and a square named after a famous author.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, September 28, 2015, 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 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 Jean Jonker, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Oakland, California. Jean 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