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There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.

The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)

punxsatawney phil lonsome george

Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot was snapped at spectacular Halong Bay in Vietnam.

halong bay vietnam

Vietnam Trip Reviews

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

In honor of this week’s holiday, today’s shot is of New Year’s fireworks sparkling above an overwater bungalow in the Maldive Islands. Happy New Year to all of our readers!

maldives fireworks overwater bungalow

Maldives Trip Reviews

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Top Travel Trends for 2013

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday morning doldrums? Whether you’re hunkered down on the U.S. East Coast waiting for Hurricane Sandy or in a different part of the world facing the beginning of another work week, you could probably use a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. That’s where our new series of Monday Inspiration posts comes in. Each Monday, we’ll offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s offering was snapped in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

gobi desert mongolia

Mongolia Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

To our readers affected by Hurricane Sandy, stay safe!

Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos

– written by Sarah Schlichter

seaweed brittany franceIt was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!

The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.

Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.

Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.

Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.

One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip

Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.

The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo

Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.

Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels

– written by Josh Thomas

cnngo hitlerThere are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.

We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our brand-new 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.

Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for more photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.

Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.

Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?

– written by Jodi Thompson

old bangkok inn lotusHere’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog.

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is 9,000 THB per night (we also accepted $226 USD as an answer, as both rates are given on the hotel’s Web site). Dorinda, who gave the first correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

The room pictured was the Lotus Suite at the Old Bangkok Inn in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s the largest of the accommodation options at this intimate guesthouse, offering two bedrooms and a private garden with a lounge and outdoor tub. The Old Bangkok Inn is located in the Banglamphu district of the city, a haven for affordable accommodation.

To check rates at other properties in Thailand’s bustling capital city, see Bangkok Hotels.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

lanson place hotel hong kong conciergeEvery Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $347 (2,700 HKD). With her guess of $327 a night, Kathy Jensen had the closest answer without going over. She has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured in Friday’s post is a superior room at the Lanson Place Hotel in Hong Kong. This boutique property offers a range of studios and suites (the room we chose is actually the cheapest at $321 – $347 a night), all including kitchenettes — ideal for families or for travelers who want to save money on restaurants by cooking for themselves. The hotel is located across the street from Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay area of the city. Read more about the Lanson Place Hotel in Hong Kong Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last week’s Photo Friday guessing game is Singapore! Pictured is the view from the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel. A ride on this giant Ferris wheel will take you more than 500 feet in the air for stomach-dropping panoramas over Singapore and Marina Bay. Learn more about Singapore in Top 9 Destinations to See in the Dark.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

With a lobby on the 103rd floor and a rooftop bar on the 118th, the brand-new Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hong Kong puts a whole new spin on the term “a room with a view.” The ultra-luxe property, which opened on Tuesday, is now the world’s highest hotel; its 312 guestrooms and suites overlook Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island from a height of some 1,600 feet. (A nice perk: Telescopes are available in all suites.)

ritz carlton hong kong hotel aerial view

Dining options at the hotel include the Italian restaurant Tosca, Tin Lung Heen (for Cantonese cuisine) and the Chocolate Library, where chocoholics can indulge in everything from savory dishes to chocolate afternoon tea. And don’t miss the 116th-floor spa, where you can savor the view through floor-to-ceiling windows while you indulge in a variety of therapeutic treatments. (Afraid of heights? Slap a few cucumber slices over your eyes and you’ll be just fine.)

ritz carlton hong kong tosca italian restaurant

ritz carlton hong kong ozone bar

Rates are nearly as sky-high as the hotel rooms. The best deal we’ve seen so far is the special Introductory Package, valid through the end of April — you’ll pay about $500 a night for a single-occupancy room with buffet breakfast.

ritz carlton hong kong hotel night victoria harbour international commerce centre

Learn more about Hong Kong in Hong Kong Essentials.

– written by Sarah Schlichter