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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

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts 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.

This week’s shot is of a spectacular sunset in Big Sur, California.

sunset big sur california


Our Favorite San Francisco Hotels

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.)

The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

– written by Sarah Schlichter

van soye family 2003Most young American adults have a limited “understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders,” according to the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literary Study.

Understanding geography is something travelers take for granted. It’s both a requirement and a side effect of travel. For Sandy and Darren Van Soye, it is a passion.

In 2003, the couple took their daughters, then ages 10 and 12, on a nearly five-month trip around the world. Through e-mails to their teachers, the family shared the voyage with the entire school. Classmates loved the missives from across the globe, and the experience changed the Van Soye daughters.

“Both girls came home understanding where places are and that much of the world lives differently than they do in California. They had more confidence and were also not afraid of interacting with adults,” said Sandy.

Years later, the couple read that 29 percent of U.S. 18- to 24-year-olds could not find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map. “We decided then and there to find a way to give back as we travel, to hopefully get kids around the globe excited about geography,” said Darren.

van soyes 2012The couple saved for seven years to take a 14-month trip to 50 countries on six continents. Now 229 days into their trip, they have covered 36,000 miles, hiking to some of the most remote places on Earth between visits to cities and towns. Lest you think the extensive trip is just a scheme to acquire bounteous frequent flier miles, the Van Soyes stay “close to the ground” using local public transportation (bus, train, ferry) whenever possible. Their goal is to experience the world more closely and minimize their carbon footprint.

8 Ways Green Travel Can Save You Money

Far from being just a vacation, however, the Van Soyes are using their excursion as a “teaching moment” for 55,000+ schoolchildren across the globe. Some 850 educators from 20 countries are following the Van Soyes’ journey with their students on the couple’s Web site, Trekking the Planet. There are also 300 or more “armchair travelers,” many of whom are fellow cruisers (the Van Soyes, avid cruisers, have incorporated five Princess cruises into their itinerary so far).

The couple provides weekly newsletters with a country-specific educational module, an article or two and often a video. “The goal is to establish a two-way link with students where they can witness first-hand the world ‘out there’ and even pose and receive answers to their questions in near real time,” said Sandy. The materials are free and accessible via their Web site as well as Facebook (Facebook.com/TrekkingPlanet) and Twitter (@TrekkingPlanet).

They’ve visited schools in American Samoa, Thailand, Laos, Nepal and Latvia so far. “The schools in Laos were some of the most remote places we have visited – the buildings were made of bamboo and had dirt floors. But to see the kids’ faces as we talked about our journey made the trip worth it! During our visits, we always ask the students questions that we received from the classrooms that are following us,” said Sandy.

“Technology has changed so much since our last trip in 2003. Last time, we used a stylus-based Casio Cassiopeia to write our e-mails and resize our photos. We used Internet cafes to send the e-mails along with our photos. Now we can do the whole thing with our smartphones,” said Darren.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

The Van Soyes are doing their part — first for their children, now for the world’s children — to broaden the understanding of young people, helping them prepare for a future that is, as the Roper report says, increasingly global.

– written by Jodi Thompson

When I touched down in Los Angeles for the first time, with only three days to sightsee and no car to get around, my first priority was to figure out how to make the most of my time. There’s no better way to get oriented quickly in a new place than by taking a tour — or, in my case, a couple of them.

As an L.A. virgin, I felt it was my duty to join the starstruck faithful on a two-hour Movie Stars’ Homes tour from StarLine, a well-established company that also runs double-decker sightseeing buses and a wide selection of other excursions around the city. It’s the kind of touristy-but-fun activity that’s practically a must-do for L.A. first-timers looking to snap a photo of the Hollywood Sign, wander amidst Spiderman impersonators on the Walk of Fame and gawk at opulent Beverly Hills mansions. (Get the details at StarLine.com.)

marilyn monroe house los angeles


But I also wanted to try a tour that was slightly less traveled, so in the afternoon I made my way to the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, a quirky little place filled from floor to high ceiling with retro movie posters, actor autobiographies and photos of all things cinema. This was the meeting point for the Hollywood Tragical History Tour, which focuses on crime, scandal and death in the City of Angels. (See DearlyDepartedTours.com.)

Like the StarLine tour, the Tragical History excursion served up plenty of celebrity gossip (for example, both guides swung by Michael Jackson’s estate to offer an in-depth account of his demise). But I soon discovered that this tour wasn’t for the faint of heart. At one point, our guide read from a graphic police report about the “Black Dahlia,” a 22-year-old woman who was killed in gruesome fashion back in 1947. (The tour provides police photos of her body too, but after hearing the stomach-turning description I opted not to look.) They’ve also got audio of the panicked 911 call made by Joaquim Phoenix as his brother River lay dying of an overdose in front of the Viper Room nightclub. And the pit stop halfway through the tour comes at the public restroom where George Michael was arrested for soliciting a police officer.

george michael urinal


Here are a few more favorite tidbits from the tours:

Movie Stars’ Homes: I had an immediate flashback to childhood when we stopped in front of the house featured in the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Hollywood Tragical History: Our fast-talking guide was a font of fun (if useless) trivia. Where else would you learn that Billy Bob Thornton is afraid of clowns, bright colors and antique furniture? Or that Britney Spears once kept a 30-day loaner car for nine months and returned it with 120 cell phones in the trunk?

viper room los angeles


While there was some overlap between the two tours, I was surprised by how different the experiences actually were. If you’ve got the time on your next trip to Los Angeles, take ‘em both: there’s no better way to get the full L.A. experience, from the sublime to the seedy.

The StarLine tour is $49 per adult when prebooked online, while the Tragical History excursion will set you back $40. Don’t forget to budget an extra $10 per person for tips.

Our Favorite Los Angeles Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

globeThis weekend, I’ll be in the company of Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Lisa Ling and thousands of other avid travelers. I’ll be checking out music and dance performances from around the world, and learning how to cook exotic dishes like Taiwanese popcorn chicken. And I’ll have the chance to win a vacation to Belize or India or even beyond.

In short, I’ll be at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show — and you could be too.

Los Angeles Without a Car

What exactly is a travel show? It’s not a TV program on the Travel Channel. No, it’s a big, colorful expo featuring exhibitors from travel companies and destinations around the world. It usually includes vacation giveaways, expert panels and talks, tons of information and inspiration, and — of course — plenty of fun freebies.

The Los Angeles Times Travel Show has all of that and more, and it’s coming up this weekend. But if you can’t make it to the City of Angels, there’s probably a travel show coming to a city near you. Below is a sampling of upcoming events around the U.S. and Canada.

Chicago: Travel & Adventure Show (January 28 – 29)

Boston: Boston Globe Travel Show (February 10 – 12)

Seattle: Golf and Travel Show (February 10 -12)

San Francisco: Travel & Adventure Show (February 18 – 19)

Spokane: Golf and Travel Show (February 18 – 19)

New York: New York Times Travel Show (March 2 – 4)

Vancouver: Golf and Travel Show (March 3 – 4)

Washington D.C.: Travel & Adventure Show (March 17 – 18)

Miami: Miami Travel Show (May 4 – 6)

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, why not come on out to the show this weekend? Admission is just $10. Look for me at the Travel in Style Pavilion, where I’ll be speaking on a panel about travel and shopping. Hope to see you there!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

los angeles freewaysIs it possible to get around the City of Angels without wheels? This week, I’m going to find out.

It’ll be my first trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling city so dependent on driving that it inspired the 80′s band Missing Persons to sing, “Nobody walks in L.A.”

Well, this traveler will be walking. And taking the subway. And riding a few buses too.

It’s not that I object to renting a car, especially when it’s the only way to explore a destination. But I live in the ‘burbs, and I already drive everywhere when I’m at home. So when I travel, it’s nice to get out from behind the wheel.

To make my L.A. trip work without a car, I’ve had to plan carefully. First, I’ve chosen a couple of hotels within walking distance of subway stops (one downtown, the other in Hollywood). Second, I’ve crafted my itinerary to focus on attractions that are easily accessible either via public transit or on foot from where I’m staying, like a couple of star tours out of Hollywood (which is on the Metro’s red line).

Our Favorite Los Angeles Hotels

I did have to scrap a visit to the Getty Center on Sunday afternoon because the L.A. Metro trip planner told me it would take anywhere from 150 to 180 minutes to get there from downtown by bus. Oof. On to Plan B: a stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art on South Grand Avenue, which is within walking distance of my downtown hotel.

Sightseeing aside, my main reason for coming to town is to speak at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show this weekend. Admission is $10; I hope any IndependentTraveler.com readers in the area will come out and say hi!

Got advice for getting around L.A. without a car? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

shutters on the beach Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes 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 $875 a night. Dorinda, whose guess was right on the money, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured was a full ocean-view king room at Shutters on the Beach, a hotel located in Santa Monica, California. This luxury property features rooms with balconies overlooking the California coast, as well as a full-service spa and a beachside pool. Guests at Shutters can partake in a variety of organized on-site activities (for an additional fee), including private surf lessons and yoga by the ocean. Read more about Shutters on the Beach in Los Angeles Essentials.

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

– written by Caroline Costello

wine country inn Here’s the answer to last 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 $645 per night. Warren, whose guess was right on the money, has won a free IndepedentTraveler.com duffel bag.

The room pictured was the Sunny Garden Cottage at the Wine Country Inn and Gardens, a Napa Valley hotel surrounded by picturesque vineyards. Prices for the Sunny Garden Cottage range from $555 to $645 per night, for two people. The private cottage is decorated with antiques, and features a four-poster king-size bed, and a bathroom with a jetted tub and a separate shower. There’s no TV in the room, but guests can keep busy with spa treatments, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and vineyard tours. Read more about the Sunny Garden Cottage in Napa Weekend Getaways.

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

– written by Caroline Costello

In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, let’s take a peek at some of the places where the guys who run the country kick back and, um, clear some brush (I’m still not exactly sure what that means).

Regardless of how they choose to spend their vacation time, the leaders of the free world, it seems, have a knack for finding the most gorgeous corners of the country in which to retreat from life in the White House. With a sky’s-the-limit budget and a team of assistants, finding the perfect place to get away probably isn’t too challenging for a commander in chief. But for those of us who do our own trip planning, the presidents’ array of amazing vacation spots can provide some excellent summer travel ideas. Here are four of our favorite presidential destinations, with suggestions for planning your own stately retreat:

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

This summer, the Obamas are once again jetting to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island freckled with sheep, apple orchards and seafood shacks (the Obamas have spent previous summer stays here). The island’s pastoral, timeworn character belies its status as a travel destination for the most stalwart power circles. The Obamas are in solid Democratic company: Previous presidential Martha’s Vineyard vacationers include the Clintons and the Kennedys.

The Obamas are returning to Blue Heron Farm, a 28-acre estate that overlooks the water. According to ABC News, “Tom Wallace, of Wallace and Company Sotheby’s International Realty, said the property, which is home to a five-bedroom main house, also features a Cape Cod guest house, a swimming pool and a half-court basketball court. The Obamas will have their pick of activities on the property, ranging from kayaking on the West Tisbury Great Pond to a simple game of horseshoes.”

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Martha’s Vineyard has a handful of Victorian B&B’s that ooze New England charm and, most importantly, offer reasonable rates for those of us without security details and private planes. We like the Oak Bluffs Inn, a 19th-century home with wicker rocking chairs on the porch and a cool polygonal tower. Rates start at $225 per night for the summer season.

martha's vineyard



Kennebunkport, Maine

In the quiet seaside town of Kennebunkport sits the famed Bush Compound, the vacation spot to which George and George W.’s family members have been returning for generations. I guess it’s called a “compound” due to the prevalence of suited security guys in dark shades — there’s a checkpoint on the road leading to the entrance — but I think “estate” or “mansion” sounds like a less frightening place to take one’s summer break. The compound was originally known as Walker’s Point Estate when it was constructed at the turn of the century. The expansive property features a four-car garage, a pool, a boathouse, tennis courts and a nine-bedroom main house.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Like Martha’s Vineyard, Kennebunkport offers plenty of Victorian B&B’s (it’s a New England thing). The Captain Lord Mansion, a popular B&B, has, without a doubt, the best name for a New England inn that I’ve heard yet. Built in 1812, the inn features lavishly appointed rooms with canopy beds and fireplaces, with summer rates starting at $239 per night.

bush compound



Santa Barbara, California
During his term as president, Ronald Reagan would often retreat to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, where he spent his time clearing brush, chopping wood and heroically riding around on horses. There’s something, well, sort of paradoxical about traveling to a multi-million-dollar ranch to partake in brush clearing. But hey — that’s what the Gipper liked to do.

The ranch spans 688 acres and provides views of the Santa Ynez Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Amenities include a quirky mix of the rustic and stately: There’s a helipad, a Secret Service command post (the only federal building remaining on the property), a hay barn, and pastures with cows and horses.

Rancho del Cielo



A Vacation for the Rest of Us:
Students who participate in Reagan Ranch programs and members of the Young America’s Foundation’s President’s Club are eligible to visit the ranch by appointment. Is this you? No? Then we recommend a stay at the Santa Ynez Inn, a convenient hub for exploring the region’s vineyards, art galleries and horse ranches. Rates start at $218.33 per night during summer, but the inn also offers various cycling tour and golf packages for bargain prices.

Key Biscayne, Florida
Ah, the beautiful Florida Keys. Nixon may have had a penchant for political sabotage, but he certainly had fine taste in vacation homes. Known as the “Florida White House,” Nixon’s Key Biscayne retreat provided a tropical waterfront escape for the 37th president of the U.S. The compound (there’s that word again) featured six bedrooms, eight bathrooms and oodles of ocean views — but it was razed in 2004 and replaced with a new home. Today, Key Biscayne’s claim to fame is that Nixon once relaxed by the ocean (and occasionally consorted with certain Florida businessmen) on its shores.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Key Biscayne is a tiny island close to Miami, where lovely beaches and the occasional Cuban restaurant are the main attractions. There’s a Ritz-Carlton on the key, where rates range from $300 to $1,000-plus per night. For the budget minded among us, Silver Sands Resort offers a cool blue pool and beachfront digs with off-season summer rates starting at $129.

Key Biscayne



– written by Caroline Costello