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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 awesome excursions for wildlife lovers.

Would you rather…

… travel to Antarctica to see penguins, or …

antarctica penguins



… look for polar bears in Arctic Canada?

polar bears arctic canada


Tell us your preference in the comments below!

Photos: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

– 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.

This week, we offer a shimmering photo of the Northern Lights over snowy Lake Laberge in Canada‘s Yukon Territory.

northern lights laberge yukon


Six Cozy Winter Getaways

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.)

How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

– written by Dori Saltzman

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!

maligne lake spirit island jasper national parkIn this month’s featured review, reader Shannon Colman discovers the scenic panoramas that have made the Canadian Rockies famous. “We stopped at Maligne Canyon to see the gushing falls and deep gorges, then went onto Maligne Lake, where a boat took us out to Spirit Island,” wrote Shannon. “This acts as a base for some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen — bright blue lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was like something from a fairy tale. The colour of the water is truly astounding.”

Read the rest of Shannon’s review here: 3 Days in the Canadian Rockies for the Independent Backpacker. Shannon has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– 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.

This week’s shot was taken on a summer evening in Butchart Gardens, Victoria, Canada.

butchart gardens victoria british columbia


7 Picture-Perfect Airport Gardens

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.)

Vancouver Travel Guide

– 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.

This week’s shot is of a polar bear chilling (no pun intended!) in the wild in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

polar bear churchill manitoba


In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

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.)

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

– written by Sarah Schlichter

billy bishop toronto city airport aerialWhen’s the last time you transferred from an airport into the heart of downtown without paying a dime? And when’s the last time you got drinks and snacks at an airport — for free?

I did both of these things on a recent trip to Toronto via Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Unlike the much larger Toronto Pearson International Airport, which is about 17 miles outside of town, Billy Bishop is located in the heart of Toronto — specifically, on an island across a narrow strip of water from downtown. It’s currently served by only two carriers, Porter Airlines and (in a more limited capacity) Air Canada.

I flew Porter from Newark to Toronto and back, and was struck by how different this airport felt than any other I’d ever flown into. First off, you get there via the world’s shortest ferry (the ride is just 90 seconds across a 132-yard stretch of water), after riding a free shuttle bus to the ferry terminal from downtown. No need to take a pricey cab.

Following a quick trip through security, you settle into a lounge with couches and cushy chairs arranged around coffee tables, looking out through large windows at the Toronto skyline. The Wi-Fi is free (albeit slow), and you can help yourself to complimentary bottled water, soft drinks, tea, coffee and snacks. All in all, it’s a pretty decent place to wait out a flight delay.

Best Airports for Layovers

Of course, such a small airport has its drawbacks. This isn’t the place to go if you want to browse a bookstore, shop for duty-free goodies or eat a full-service meal; there are no stores or restaurants, just a quick-stop cafe. And you can forget about fun extras like massage chairs or play areas for kids.

Billy Bishop isn’t the world’s most entertaining airport. But after my last flight through New York JFK — where the service was sour, the customs line stretched for miles, and I had to shell out $10 for a measly bottled water and yogurt — I’d go back to that laid-back lounge in a heartbeat.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

What’s your favorite small airport?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

food bank volunteerA big blue tour bus that could probably hold some 60 people waited outside the pier for us — all five of us. We were three passengers off of a Crystal cruise ship, one crew member and one “host.” While other passengers headed off for a tour of Halifax, we were all here with a different goal in mind.

We were all volunteers for the line’s You Care, We Care voluntourism excursion to the Feed Nova Scotia food distribution center in Halifax. Feed Nova Scotia is a private charity that helps hungry people throughout the province by collecting and distributing food to more than 150 member food banks and meal programs.

Our job at the food bank was to unpack boxes full of food and household items, sorting them and repackaging them by category. Once we had a full box of a sorted item, like a box of grains or a box of condiments, we had to weigh it, label it and then put it on a pallet for shipping.

The Art of Slow Travel

Most of the boxes were heavy and dusty, and I ended up on the “wrong” side of the sorting table. My job was to lift the boxes onto the table. I was, after all, the youngest volunteer. I then unpacked the boxes, while our guide and Margie, another cruise passenger from Tennessee, sorted the items into their appropriate categories.

As we sorted, I was shocked to discover how much junk food (sorted as “snack” food) was donated. In the two hours we were there, we unpacked and repacked more soda, chocolate bars (Lindt chocolate!) and other varied snack items than any other category. I don’t think we ever filled a single canned meat box or dairy box, but the hungry people of Nova Scotia certainly won’t be wanting for Coke.

We didn’t talk too much as we worked, other than to consult on whether a six-pack of peaches was real fruit or a snack item (fruit if no added sugar; snack, otherwise), or which box olive oil should go into (baking, not condiments). But later, as we waited, hot and sweaty, for our bus to take us back to Crystal Symphony, I asked Margie and her husband Phil why they had decided to volunteer.

“We didn’t really like any of the other excursions,” Phil said. “But, back home, we believe strongly in giving back to our community.”

Volunteer Vacations

To them, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out one of these options. On previous Crystal cruises, they’d seen the voluntourism offerings but never tried them. (Editor’s Note: Crystal offers a free voluntourism excursion on almost every sailing.)

Would he do it again? “No promises,” Phil said. It would depend on what the other excursion offerings were.

volunteer handsAs for me, after two hours of lifting heavy boxes, standing around a sorting table and going through hundreds of food and household items, my lower back ached and my hands were filthy. I was ready to return to the ship. We were thanked enthusiastically for our time and though I was never going to get to see the end result of my work, I left feeling I had at least done a little something for someone else.

Until I did this excursion, I had never really considered volunteering some of my time while vacationing. If I’ve got five or seven days in a destination, giving up three hours really isn’t a big deal. Though I had come to the food bank through the cruise line, I am sure any tourist visiting Halifax who offered to donate some time would be welcomed warmly.

I am equally sure that every city has an abundance of nonprofit organizations that could use an extra pair of hands for a few hours. And the next time I travel somewhere for five days or longer, I’m going to look into it. That’s a promise.

–written by Dori Saltzman

Newfoundland may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about traveling somewhere for its music. Instead, you might think Ireland for its Celtic sounds or New Orleans for great jazz; Nashville is world-famous for country music, while Salzburg and Vienna resonate with loves of classical.

But for me the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland ranks near the top of my list of for destinations I want to visit for their rich musical heritage. The city and island are steeped in maritime traditions including a love of rollicking sea shanties influenced by the Irish, English and Scottish sailors who alit on its shores centuries ago.

Want a taste of what Newfoundland has been known to serve up, musically speaking? Check out this clip from a Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival.



Other places high on my list of must-visit musical destinations include Ireland and Cape Breton.

I have yet to make it to Newfoundland or Cape Breton, but I’ve been to Ireland four times. One of my favorite trips included two nights in the small town of Doolin, where impromptu seisiúns popped up nightly.

Have you ever traveled somewhere just because of its musical traditions or history? Which cities call to you because an artist or music movement was born there?

Turn Your Favorite Hobby into a Trip

– written by Dori Saltzman

There are certainly reasons to avoid leaf peeping in its usual incarnation. You could easily overdose on quaintness while choosing the plumpest pumpkin or dearest antique. If you shy away from scores of children wielding candied apples while running wild through cornstalk mazes, you may want to skip the season altogether. Understood.

But you’d be missing some glorious sights, whether you go simply for the visual treat or allow the colors to enhance a trip with an entirely non-related agenda. Don’t allow the scarecrows to chase you away. Indulge. Here are some places we wouldn’t mind visiting during the autumn months. We may even enjoy a crisp apple or some pumpkin ice cream along the way.

Take the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway up the Hotake Mountains, near Nagano, Japan. From both the double-decker gondolas and the observation deck, you’ll enjoy a glorious view.

hotake japan



Explore the monasteries of Echmiadzin, Armenia. Perhaps sight a few khachkars, outdoor stone slabs carved with detailed motifs, which can still be found although many have been destroyed.

khachkars armenia



Drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through the beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. This National Scenic Byway, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina, is bordered with deciduous trees, such as oak, dogwood, hickory, buckeye and ash.

blue ridge parkway



Skip Paris in the springtime and visit in autumn. The fall foliage in Jardin du Luxembourg easily rivals its colorful May blooms.

jardin du luxembourg paris



For more lovely landscapes in autumn, don’t miss the Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You’ll find a serenity impossible to locate in a corn maze.

butchart gardens




Eight Unique Ways to Experience Fall


Where will you take in the fall foliage this year?

– written by Jodi Thompson

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 Friday’s photo guessing game is Montreal! The building with the green roof is Montreal’s 1870′s-era city hall, located in the part of town known as Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal). Nearby is Place de Cartier, a popular square that bustles with street performers and sidewalk cafes in the summertime. Learn more about the city in Montreal Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

– written by Sarah Schlichter