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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!

blenheim marlborough new zealandIn this month’s featured review, reader Caroline Hanson writes about the trip of a lifetime to New Zealand. “In Blenheim, we stayed at the Old St. Mary’s Convent Vineyard Estate. The B&B was elegant. I found the hostess, Maria, especially friendly and helpful,” says Caroline. “Of course, since she had cats, she was my immediate friend. The grounds and gardens were so peaceful. My husband loved his walk in the morning among the exquisite gardens. The B&B is situated among the picturesque vineyards. We marveled at how straight the seemingly endless rows of vines appeared.”

Read the rest of Caroline’s review here: Bucket List Trip to New Zealand. Caroline has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

globeHappy Earth Day!

This year’s global theme is Green Cities, part of an initiative to reduce pollution and strain on the environment as a result of a growing urban population.

Despite what you may believe, activities surrounding this holiday of environmental awareness aren’t all educational brochures and planting trees. Events around the U.S. are as varied as biodiesel-powered amusement park rides and healthy food trucks in Ohio to “a parade of human-powered vehicles” that will deliver kegs of beer from local breweries to the Harmon Tap Room in a Washington Earth Day competition.

Earth Day is recognized by more than 190 countries across the world. Here are five examples of how other nations are celebrating April 22 with an earthly appeal.

Albania: This European nation is holding events in two different cities. In Durres, the public is invited to play a rousing game of Eco-Monopoly (based on the Green Cities theme) and join a pot-making workshop to plant flowers in containers made of recycled materials. In Vlore, students, youth and other citizens will gather in the main square to sign a petition to increase green spaces in the town.

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City Green Talk will host Earth Day activities for representatives from across Vietnam. Students from 50 local schools will take part in a green flash mob to increase awareness for environmental issues and participate in the day’s other events.

Top Five Destinations for Ecotourism

Uganda: Uganda has numerous events planned, including tree planting, town cleaning, and a seed and soil program involving local farmers. An organization called LCD is creating a green map to develop areas of environmental significance in their community (such as planting shade-giving trees in areas like their stadium, where inhabitants suffer from too much sun exposure).

Dominican Republic: Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resorts across the country will turn off their lights to increase awareness of energy use.

Lebanon: In Dekwaneh, Earth Day events will take place in the city square and feature music, dance, art and the announcement of the city’s new green plan. Baldati.org, a Lebanese NGO focusing on social responsibility and sustainability, will host the events, which include a hike that will begin in a green area and end in a heavily built-up urban area to demonstrate the dramatic difference.

Do you have plans for Earth Day? Have you celebrated it in a different country? Let us know in the comments.

– 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 unique musical learning experiences.

Would you rather…

… learn to play the didgeridoo in Australia

didgeridoo aborigine australia



… take a tango class in Argentina?

tango argentina


The didgeridoo is Australia’s most famous instrument, and you can learn to play it in places such as Perth (see DidgeridooBreath.com) and Melbourne (DidgesbyBruce.com.au). It’s easy to catch a tango performance in Buenos Aires, but many of the venues that offer shows also have lessons for beginners who want to get a taste of the dance. See our Buenos Aires guide for more info.

11 Best Australia 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 places to see colorful spring flowers.

Would you rather…

… explore Japan during cherry blossom season, or …

japan himeji castle cherry blossoms sakura



… see spring blooms in the Swiss Alps?

switzerland swiss alps flowers spring


Japan is famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms, which flower at various times between March and May (depending on which region of the country you’re visiting). In the mountains of Switzerland, striking alpine flowers add color to meadows and hillsides throughout the spring and summer.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

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 on the water.

Would you rather…

… stay in an overwater bungalow in the Maldives, or …

overwater bungalow maldives



… explore the Mediterranean coast from a private yacht?

yacht mallorca spain


Think “overwater bungalows” and you probably think of French Polynesia, but the remote Maldives Islands also have their share of these luxe accommodations, hovering over the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In between diving and swimming, you can visit traditional villages and even join the locals on a night fishing excursion before retreating back to your bungalow. If sailing along the Mediterranean coast is more your speed, you can charter a yacht through companies such as AquaCruise, Sunsail or Yachting Partners International. Potential destinations include Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Italy and more.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane seatsMany consider spring a time for renewal — birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and people are getting married in droves. But just because winter is over and spring is on its way, doesn’t mean we immediately feel like singing “Here Comes the Sun.” What better cure than travel for what ails you? These five suggestions might be the change of pace you need to get chirping, blooming and falling in love with the season.

 

I’m Still Cold — For many of us, this winter was a brutal one and is still hanging tight. If the upwards motion of your thermometer is moving at a painstaking pace, jump-start your sun worship with some solar energy. The prospect of being stuck at a warm-weather resort during spring break is a scary one, so consider less conventional locations to heat you up. Post-Carnival, many South American capitals experience a dip in tourism. Lucky for us, weather is still pleasant in March and April (average highs in the 70s to 80s) and prices are cheaper in cities like Lima, Cartagena, San Jose, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. If you’re looking for something a bit farther, try a number of hot (literally and figuratively) Southeast Asian destinations including Chiang Mai, Goa and Luang Prabang in Laos; temperatures get into the 90s, but evenings are cooler and your money will go much farther in this region. If you’re looking to venture closer to the states, Mexico City offers equal respite from frozen precipitation and partygoers.
 
Slideshow: 10 Best Peru Experiences
 
I’m Tired — Like jet lag, but seasonal, post-hibernation sloth might take an adjustment period. To transition you from your winter cocoon into a spring butterfly, why not retreat for some vernal rejuvenation? From the spa keystone of Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona or Lenox, Massachusetts to a hotel in Paris that offers rooms specializing in a sleep-inducing atmosphere, why not splurge on some beauty rest? Helping you catch Zzzs has become an industry trend, according to a recent New York Times article.
 
I Haven’t Moved in Months — The New Year brings resolutions, but it also brings inevitable excuses: It’s dark out too early, it’s cold, I’m swamped with work, I just want to curl up into a ball and marathon everything ever broadcast on television. A new season is stimulus to step outdoors and renew your self-promises, and why not kick-start the process with an entire change of scenery? Plenty of walking, biking and other generally active tours will motivate you into movement with ample sightseeing and rewarding rest breaks. Not every active tour moves at a breakneck speed; Access Trips offers biking trips at beginner to intermediate levels, and tour companies like G Adventures allow you to sort through vacation packages by travel style and physical level. Destinations wrap the globe and feature Costa Rica, Turkey and the Outback.
 
Slideshow: 11 Best Australia Experiences
 
I Miss Holidays — Sure, we had Thesaurus Day (January 18) and National Earmuff Day (March 13), but they lacked the hoopla of the major winter holidays. This lull in festive food-stuffing and paid time off can be a bummer, so travel somewhere that’s celebrating something! Tourism Week (March/April) has replaced Holy Week in Uruguay, as a country with no official religion. As for a devoutly religious country, Italy always seems to be celebrating a saint’s day — The Feast of St. Mark takes place on April 25 in Venice, and features boat races with gondoliers. Same goes for India — days of religious observance pepper the calendar throughout the year, with many taking place in April. The city of Brasov, in Romania, officially welcomes spring with Junii (Feast of Youth) — including an elaborate horseback parade and weeklong feast around the Easter holiday season. You can even ring in the first day of summer, in April; it takes place on April 24 in Iceland.
 
Slideshow: 12 International Foods to Try Before You Die
 
I Miss Winter — This phrase may fall on deaf ears, but some people actually like winter — to the point where they want more than a few months of it. If you can’t get enough of the frozen wonderland, and don’t plan on visiting either of the poles, then perhaps the Antarctic Experience at museums in either London or New Zealand will satisfy the need for extreme wintry conditions. Outside of an artificial experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a traditional winter in spring in the northern hemisphere or fall in the southern hemisphere. Still, plenty of places in the world experience snow in April, and Scandinavia is one of them. Ski resorts thrive into spring in Norway, Sweden and Greenland, but mainly in high-altitude mountainous regions. As a bonus, the aurora borealis can still be witnessed throughout the month of April.
 
– 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 lush green landscapes.

Would you rather…

… soak in tropical hot springs in Costa Rica, or …

hot springs waterfall costa rica



… explore Bali’s verdant rice terraces?

rice field bali indonesia


As Elissa Leibowitz Poma writes in 12 Best Costa Rica Experiences, “Given its volcanic landscape, Costa Rica has quite a few natural hot springs and mud pools. Most are open to the public; independent travelers visiting small towns should ask around about hot springs on private property that you can get permission to access with a sweet smile and small ‘donation.’” In Bali, the rice terraces climbing the green hills make for striking photo ops. Some of the most beautiful are near the village of Tegallalang.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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!

lubeck germanyIn this month’s featured review, reader Lyn Hargreave describes a journey in which she aimed to experience Germany “as a traveler, not a tourist.”

She accomplished that through a cultural exchange organization called Friendship Force International: “Every night, we were treated to dinner in different homes, as we were previously during our stay near Hamburg. Our hosts planned and showed us what we asked to see. So easy! No cars to rent, no train schedules to hassle with. The hospitality of new friends through Friendship Force International made this a warm and very personal experience. We now look forward to welcoming these new friends to our homes next year.”

Read the rest of Lyn’s review here: Germany Up Close and Personal. Lyn 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 scenic rides.

Would you rather…

… go kayaking in Milford Sound, New Zealand, or …

kayak kayaking milford sound new zealand



… take a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway in California?

pacific coast highway california


Milford Sound (actually a fjord) is one of the most popular attractions on New Zealand’s South Island, but most visitors see it via a small cruise ship rather than on a more intimate kayaking journey. (Intrigued? Roscoe’s Milford Kayaks is one local operator.) If driving is more your speed, you can’t beat the Pacific Coast Highway for sweet scenery along the California coast.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

– written by Sarah Schlichter