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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Catch up on our favorite travel articles and videos of the week.

smartphone gps car


How GPS Is Messing with Our Minds
It’s hard to imagine navigating the world without a GPS these days, but this article from Time notes that relying so heavily on such devices harms our ability to make our own “cognitive map” — i.e., to get a clear sense of where we are in the context of our surroundings. This sometimes has tragic results (such as people following their GPS unit’s instructions into dangerous mountain terrain). Is it time for good old-fashioned maps to make a comeback?

Forget Your Passport; You’ll Need a DNA Sample to Enter Kuwait
Well, here’s an alarming idea. The New York Daily News reports that anyone who wants to travel to Kuwait will soon have to provide either “a swab of saliva or a few drops of blood” as a DNA sample. Though the Kuwaiti government promises that the samples won’t be tested for disease or otherwise infringe on property, it’s easy to see how this could go wrong (and make passport control lines even longer…).

Tipping Is Really Out of Control Now
Christopher Elliott of Elliott.org reports that more and more employees are asking for gratuities these days, including people we wouldn’t normally think to tip (such as tow truck drivers, airline ticket agents and even opticians). In a poll at the end of the article, about 70 percent of respondents say they’d like to have tipping restricted or banned by law. Do you agree?

Cruising Through the End of the World
Pacific Standard offers a fascinating look at the Northwest Passage, the famed pathway through the Canadian Arctic that intrepid explorers once suffered and died trying to find. These days you can explore it yourself aboard a cruise ship, seeing remote villages and looking out for polar bears.

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and Travel
The New York Times interviews Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love” — inspiration for a collection of essays called “Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It.” Gilbert reveals her favorite moment in the new book, shares her future travel plans and explains why her mother started traveling late in life.

Delta Is First Airline to Use New Baggage Tracking Technology
Could this be the beginning of the end of lost luggage? Conde Nast Traveler reports that Delta will start using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to track checked bags by the end of this year. Delta claims that this system is 99.9 percent effective, more so than the current system of barcoded tags and scanners. We’re crossing our fingers.

Why I Travel the World Alone
Travel + Leisure features an essay by a hardcore adventure traveler (“During a recent trip to Chad … I spent 19 days sleeping in the great outdoors — and going to the loo there, too — while crossing the Sahara Desert. I showered twice in 21 days”) who finds incredible rewards in the challenges and freedoms of traveling alone. We bet you’ll be inspired by her story too.

This week’s featured video comes from JetBlue, which turned frowns upside down on a recent flight by giving away discounts off a future trip every time a baby cried on the plane. Happy Mother’s Day!


10 Things to Do Before You Travel
What Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.

longyearbyen svalbard


Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.

ice zodiac svalbard norway


From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.

Photos: 9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

polar bear churchill manitoba


Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.

Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.

churchill manitoba sunset


The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.

11 Best Canada Experiences

grand teton national park wyoming


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.

Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.

National Park Vacations

birds in alaska


Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

What are your favorite cold-weather destinations? Post them in the comments below.

— written and photographed by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Seville may be romanticized as the vibrant jewel of southern Spain, but for me it’ll forever be remembered as a dusty, hot and overcrowded tourist trap. My only vivid memory is of being drenched in sweat walking up the never-ending ramps of the Giralda bell tower.

Ditto for Florence, Italy, which was overrun with American tour groups and so lacking in lodging when I visited that I had to sleep in a shabby hostel where the roaches congregated at night by the drain in the shower.

There are cities that you’re supposed to fall in love with, that you’re supposed to dream of visiting over and over again. Seville and Florence weren’t among them for me, and I don’t ever think I’ll go back. (To see more staff picks for cities not worth a second trip, see 12 Places You Only Need to See Once.)

Where will I return? Most certainly these five places:

lima peru


Lima, Peru: I must admit, I wasn’t impressed during my first visit to Lima nearly a decade ago. But the city has improved — traffic seems less frenetic and neighborhoods less run down. Lima is worth the trip for its foodie scene alone; some of the world’s most noteworthy restaurants are there.

10 Best Peru Experiences

golden gate bridge san francisco


San Francisco, California: I don’t think of the City by the Bay merely as a U.S. city. San Francisco belongs to the world. Of all the cities I’ve visited, San Francisco is, hands down, the most beautiful. I never tire of the view, especially if the Golden Gate Bridge is within sight.

vigeland park oslo norway


Oslo, Norway: The two days I spent after a cruise to Arctic Norway weren’t nearly enough time in the pristine and pretty Norwegian capital. Oslo is expensive ($12 for a cup of coffee? Seriously?), but worth another visit merely for an extra day strolling through the incredible sculpture garden in Vigeland Park.

The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art

toronto skyline


Toronto, Canada: This is where I first got hooked on traditional afternoon tea (at the Fairmont Royal York) and on ice hockey (at the Hockey Hall of Fame).

segovia spain


Segovia, Spain: I’ve visited several times, always visiting the cathedral and walking along the aqueduct walls. Segovia is the Spain you imagine. Sorry, Seville.

Which places could you visit over and over again?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Heights: You either love them or wither at the thought of them. If you fall into the phobic category like I do, you’re probably not apt ever to ride a glass-bottomed hot air balloon or swim in the glass-bottomed swimming pool that a British developer recently announced that he’ll construct 10 stories up, spanning two London apartment buildings.

I don’t see those activities in my future. But maybe one day I could stroll across a high-in the-sky glass skywalk. Here are six skywalks I’d like to cross, in order from highest to lowest, if I ever find the nerve:

tianmen skywalk


Tianmen Skywalk, China
Before you jaunt across the glass-bottomed walkway hugging the cliffs of Tianmen (“Heavenly Gate”) Mountain in the Hunan Province of China, you must wrap your shoes in protective booties. This ensures the glass stays clean, so that you can clearly see all 4,700 feet down. (But is it slippery?)

grand canyon skywalk


Grand Canyon Skywalk, U.S.A.
Run by the Hualapai Nation on the western side of the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that juts 70 feet from the edge of the canyon and 4,000 feet above the riverbed below.

shanghai world financial center observatory


Shanghai World Financial Center Observatory, China
The observation deck of this skyscraper contains a 180-foot-long glass-bottomed walkway that soars more than 1,400 feet in the air.

glacier skywalk jasper


Glacier Skywalk, Canada
In a horseshoe shape like the Grand Canyon skywalk, this walkway overlooks the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies. It’s only 918 feet to the valley below. Only.

dachstein glacier skywalk


Dachstein Glacier Skywalk, Austria
This alpine walkway sits aside a glacier 820 feet up the side of a sheer rock-walked mountain. You have to take a steep gondola ride to get there, and there’s a gut-churning suspension bridge too.

tower bridge glass floor


Tower Bridge Glass Floor, England
It sits a mere 138 feet above the River Thames in London, but looking down on the zooming-by bridge traffic below you will make you feel dizzy. One of the coolest times to be there is during a bridge lift.

If a glass walkway is too much for you, maybe you could instead handle a peek through a glass floor at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Skytree in Tokyo or CN Tower in Toronto.

Or, if you’re extra bold, try the glass-enclosed boxes that jut out from a ledge at the Willis Tower in Chicago or the side of Chamonix Peak in France. I know I won’t be.

Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Photo of Tower Bridge Glass Floor used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original photo copyright Flickr user Bex Walton.

Maybe you’re sick of summer’s heat and humidity. Or maybe you’re blissfully reading this from an iPad on the beach. But whether you love it or hate it, summer’s days are numbered — and that means it’s just about time to look ahead to fall.

Where will you travel in the coming months? Here are four fall trips to consider, depending on your interests.

lake district autumn


Looking for leaf-peeping? Consider a jaunt across the pond to England‘s Lake District, whose forested hills come alive with color in the autumn months. There are plenty of places for a stroll in and around Lake District National Park.

lighthouse prince edward island


In need of a little relaxation? Combine lobster, lighthouses and laid-back charm on a road trip around Prince Edward Island, Canada. Famous as the setting for the “Anne of Green Gables” novels and miniseries, the island’s rolling farms and red sandy beaches are the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the simple beauty of the landscape.

grand knip beach curacao


Not ready to let go of summer? Head down to Curacao, known for its pastel-colored capital and peaceful white sand beaches. As one of the ABC islands (along with Aruba and Bonaire), Curacao is far enough south to miss most of the hurricanes that plague other Caribbean islands this time of year.

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

oryx namaqualand south africa


Want to watch wildlife? Journey to South Africa for a taste of spring south of the equator. South Africa made it into our list of 12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season for several key reasons: Safaris are often a little cheaper this time of year, temperatures are a little more comfortable and wildlife watchers can partake in an annual Whale Festival in Hermanus.

Photos: 10 Best South Africa Experiences

Where are you headed this fall?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Vancouver, a diverse seaport and the largest city in British Columbia, is a perfect place to explore on your own. Solo travelers can sample their way through the sensory-exploding market of Granville Island or avoid the rain under the enchanting overhang of a traditional Chinese garden. If you are independently exploring Vancouver, make sure not to miss the five best things to do around the city for solo travelers.

vancouver seawall


Walk (or Bike) the Seawall
The Seaside Greenway, a 17.4-mile pedestrian and bike path encircling scenic parts of Vancouver, is the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront pathway. The Seawall is a stunning portion of this pathway, surrounding the city’s massive Stanley Park and extending past charming English Bay beaches. With restrictions that dictate direction, pedestrian-only lanes and walk-your-bike areas (at times the path becomes extremely narrow), this picturesque path is best enjoyed solo as you take in the sights. A 5.6-mile stretch, the Seawall takes an estimated two to three hours to walk and one hour to cycle.

Acme Cafe in Gastown Vancouver


Savor a Meal
While dining out in any new city can be a great way to experience the local culture as well its unique food scene, eating alone in Vancouver proved to be satisfying in a different way. Whereas “table for one?” might be uttered with a tinge of dismay in certain swanky metropolitan eateries, I always felt welcomed — even special, and in a strange way, brave –for dining solo in Vancouver. Servers happily chatted about the menu and weren’t hesitant to spend time at my table. Grabbing a paper or people-watching during my meals, I made an effort to not even pick up my phone (hence no foodie photos!). In the trendy Gastown district (where I stayed) try Acme Cafe for comfort food (51 W. Hastings St.); Nuba for delightful Lebanese (various locations — I visited 207 W. Hastings St.); and Bao Bei, a Chinese brasserie (163 Keefer St.).

dr. sun yat-sen classical chinese garden chinatown vancouver


Visit an Authentic Chinese Garden
The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, located within Vancouver’s Chinatown, is an authentic representation of a Ming Dynasty-era scholar’s garden — the first of its kind outside of China. Calming water features and traditional architecture (complete with the smell of teak wood) contrast peacefully with the city skyline in the background. This is a great place for solo travelers to escape with their thoughts and reflect — and because of the roof design, it’s even better in the rain.

science world telus world of science vancouver


Explore Science World
While I experienced unparalleled sunny weather in Vancouver during my visit in late June, the region is known for rain. If you’re looking for a way to spend a gray day that won’t require being cooped up or stuck shopping, take a visit to Science World. A sparkling geodesic dome, towering metal dinosaur and Mondrian-like exterior invite you into a museum with intricate exhibits that will keep you occupied for hours. Can’t bear the thought of wading through crowds of kids? Science World hosts occasional After Dark adult evenings featuring special guests such as the animators from “Jurassic World” — check ScienceWorld.ca for details.

granville island public market vancouver


Spend a Day at Granville Island
You could throw a stone to Granville Island; it’s that close to downtown Vancouver. Short of swimming there, you can take a ferry across False Creek (or have a taxi or tour bus drop you off — buses aren’t allowed past a certain point). Alone with nothing but your five senses, Granville Island offers a feast for all of them. There’s plenty to keep you occupied here, from beer tasting at Granville Brewing Company to seasonal live music to endless artsy shops (including fun independent toy stores). But our favorite stop is the public market, featuring a smorgasbord of fresh food and gourmet delights. If you’re missing human interaction, consider taking a tour with Vancouver Foodie Tours, which allows you to sample the market’s many goodies while meeting other travelers along the way.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

yoho national park canoe alberta canada


Population: 34.8 million

Currency: Canadian dollar

Phrase to Know: Double-double (a coffee with two creams and two sugars, a term popularized by the Tim Hortons coffee chain)

Fun Fact: In a roundabout way, Winnie-the-Pooh got his name from the Canadian city of Winnipeg. A.A. Milne, the English author of the famous children’s books, named his character after his son’s toy bear — who was named after Winnie, a black bear the boy had seen at the London Zoo. The bear was brought to England by a soldier who bought her as a cub in Canada and named her after his adopted home town of Winnipeg.

We Recommend: Go dog sledding under the northern lights in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories.

11 Best Canada Experiences

Have you been to Canada? What was your favorite spot?

— 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!

faneuil hall bostonIn this month’s featured review, reader Paul G Price recaps a recent cruise to Canada and New England. His favorite stop? Boston: “We like the Hop-On, Hop-Off trolley that we scheduled thru Viator,” writes Paul. “We began our walk of the Freedom Trail outside of Quincy Market. This market was a great place to see every type of food offered and more. Next we finished the block by stopping in Faneuil Hall and followed the brick in the sidewalk, representing the Freedom Trail to the Old State House. … The complete circuit of the HOHO bus took us to places like Bunker Hill, the ship Constitution and beautiful old Fenway Park.”

Read the rest of Paul’s review here: Canada and New England. Paul has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review by 11:59 p.m. ET on November 25, 2014, and you could win a $200 eBags gift card!

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

I admit I have a spooky streak: It’s more curious than morbid, but I find myself touring cemeteries (for the history! And architecture!) and waiting for the day when I can finally pay a visit to the Overlook Hotel — inspiration for “The Shining” (I’m a big Kubrick fan). If this sounds like your idea of fun too, and you are looking to plan your next vacation with an excursion into the paranormal (or an actual stay on location), you may want to investigate the following supposedly haunted sites. All locations were found on a list of the most haunted places in the world, from a U.K. website called Haunted Rooms.

haunted ancient ram inn gloucestershire englandAncient Ram Inn, Gloucestershire, England
The British Isles have their share of folklore, but the story of this ancient inn is no fairy tale. Built in the 12th century, this building is said to occupy a former pagan burial ground and has been the site of child sacrifices and devil worship. Currently serving as a bed and breakfast, guests report being touched and pulled, hearing voices and feeling an evil presence. Its location at the intersection of two ley lines is said to be a conduit for spiritual activity.

13 Best England Experiences


haunted castle of good hope in cape town south africaCastle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa
Supernatural sightings at this 17th-century castle built by the Dutch East India Company include a man repeatedly jumping off a castle wall, and an apparition known as the Lady in Grey who stalked the castle halls crying hysterically. Since a woman’s body was unearthed during a recent excavation, sightings of the Lady have vanished, but ringing bells and the ghost of a black dog are among the curiosities still experienced here.

haunted banff springs hotel in alberta canadaBanff Springs Hotel, Alberta, Canada
Frighteningly similar to the eerie aura of “The Shining,” this hotel set in the Canadian countryside was built more than 125 years ago and has been the stage for several strange encounters. As in the cult classic film, a family was murdered in one of its rooms, which has been bricked up ever since (but they can still be seen in the hallway). A bride is reported to have fallen down the stairs and broken her neck after her dress caught fire, but a friendlier ghost — a popular bellman from the 60s and 70s — also resides here and still tries to help guests to their rooms, turning on lights and opening doors.

11 Offbeat Things to Do in Canada


haunted brissac castle in maine-et-loire franceChateau de Brissac, Maine-et-Loire, France
The tallest castle in France is picturesque for sure, but has a dark past. A 15th-century double murder left the home with a specter known as the Green Lady. Story has it that if she looks at you, there are holes where her eyes and nose would be. The current Duke of Brissac and his family reside in the castle to this day and seem unaffected, but guests have reported early-morning moans and sightings of the green ghoul.

A Dozen Things You’ll Find in France


haunted island of the dolls in xochimilco mexicoIsland of the Dolls, Xochimilco, Mexico
Perhaps the creepiest of all, this lakeside town near Mexico City is not only home to a small and terrifying population of mutilated dolls, but the story behind them is truly chilling. In the 1920s, an accident left a girl drowned. In the 1950s, a recluse named Julian began communicating with the spirit of the young girl and leaving dolls for her on the island. After many years, Julian felt like he could no longer appease her and confessed to his nephew that he felt she would harm him. Later that day he was found face down in the exact location where the girl reportedly drowned. To this day, residents report whisperings from the dolls and wandering eyes.

haunted lawang sewu building in semarang indonesia Lawang Sewu, Semarang, Indonesia
If the name (translation: “thousand doors”) isn’t a bit mysterious as it is, the building was occupied by Japanese forces during WWII and used as a prison, where many were tortured or executed. Believed to be one of the most haunted places in Indonesia, this building (also built by the Dutch East India Company) is said to host multiple ghosts, including a Dutch woman who committed suicide there, headless spirits and a vampiric ghost, or kuntilanak, as it’s known in the region’s folklore.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

Photo of Ancient Ram Inn used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Synwell.

Photo of Island of the Dolls used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Esparta Palma.

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 tourist sites associated with classic novels.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hobbiton village in New Zealand (based on Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series), or …

hobbiton matamata new zealand lord of the rings



… visit Green Gables, the Prince Edward Island farm that inspired the “Anne of Green Gables” books?

green gables prince edward island


Hobbiton is located near Matamata on the North Island of New Zealand. The village, used as a set for Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movie trilogies, is now open for tours. “Anne of Green Gables” fans will recognize the Green Gables home in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. L.M. Montgomery, the author of the famous book series, visited the farm often when she was growing up (it belonged to her grandfather’s cousins), and used it as inspiration for the home of her lovable red-headed orphan.

9 Great Authors and the Places That Shaped Them

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter