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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 appealing holiday travel options.

Would you rather …

… stroll through a snowy Christmas market in Europe

stockholm christmas market snowy holiday sweden



… build “snowmen” on the beach in the Caribbean?

beach snowmen sand caribbean


Europe is home to numerous traditional Christmas markets that run throughout the festive season. (Don’t miss this video of Berlin’s market.) But while these markets have charm to spare, they also typically feature gray skies and wintry weather — which means you might be happier having your holidays on the beach instead.

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

trinidad cubaFor more than 50 years, Cuba has been a travel taboo for U.S. residents. Going there wasn’t technically prohibited — particularly if you were able to get special clearances as a journalist or Cuban expat, or if you traveled with an authorized tour operator — but spending money there was. Sure, there were ways around the restrictions, but this week we’ve gotten closer to the day when independent American travelers will no longer have to make sneaky pit stops in Mexico or Canada along the way.

Earlier this week, after Cuba and the U.S. came to an agreement that released prisoners on both ends and returned them to their home countries, the rules about spending money in Cuba were relaxed. Travelers will soon be able to use their credit and debit cards to make purchases on the island, and lovers of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy knowing that won’t have to smuggle their Caribbean souvenirs back into the U.S. anymore (not that anyone has ever done that, of course).

Congress will discuss lifting further economic sanctions next year.

Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember

What does this mean for Cuba travel right now? Is it likely that you’ll be able to just pack your bags and book a trip on a whim without a U.S.-sanctioned reason? Not just yet. But anyone wishing to explore the country might find it easier to fit into one of the allowable categories (which include family visits, humanitarian projects, educational activities and “support for the Cuban people,” among others).

Are you interested in Cuba travel? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below.

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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 destinations with a pink theme.

Would you rather…

… check out the pastel-colored architecture in sunny Oranjestad, Aruba

aruba pink architecture



… see thousands of flamingos in Lake Nakuru, Kenya?

flamingos lake nakuru kenya


Aruba’s cheery capital city, Oranjestad, is known for its pastel-colored Dutch architecture. Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park is home to some 450 bird species, including the greater and lesser flamingo.

Planning an African Safari

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

After recently spending a week at the home of a family friend in Grenada, I was a bit surprised to find that I had taken a vacation in the Caribbean and come back with not only a wicked tan, but also an education. An island in the West Indies, Grenada is a bit of a palimpsest, with traces of British and French roots visible in rusted fleur-de-lis fencing and cannons from another era. Although every country (no matter how small) can claim its own culture, Grenada stood apart with such a distinct identity that I’ll never make the mistake of confusing it for “just another island in the Caribbean” again. Here are five reasons the Spice Island left such an impression.

First-Place Flora
bird of paradise flower in Grenada

Grenada has won the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show 10 times, and when you step foot on the island you’ll immediately see why. Look left, look right, and spot countless species of blooms and trees crowding the landscape. Nature trails run in conjunction with numerous waterfalls, providing harmony among the elements and also convenient flower-gazing under a single entrance fee. Particularly pretty is Annandale Falls, where this photo was taken. Seven Sisters Falls, one of the top-ranked attractions in Grenada, is located within Grand Etang National Park, a rain forest preserve located high up in the island’s interior.


Organic Exports
fruit and vegetable stand in Grenada

A nickname like the Spice Isle comes with a reputation, and it holds up. Enjoy the flavors of Grenada’s famous nutmeg, cocoa and cinnamon in dishes prepared across the island (or sprinkled in rum punch). Take advantage of the variety of fresh fruit — and juice — while you are there (packing mangoes wrapped in your dirty laundry is frowned upon by the TSA) and experiment with your tastebuds by trying flavors like golden apple, tamarind, soursop and even sea moss. Spice up your knowledge by talking to vendors about which products — jams, jellies, syrups and powder — come from which part of the nutmeg (yes, there are multiple parts!). Look also for popular treats like chocolate tea and homemade ice cream.


Surprising History
a view from inside Fort George in Grenada

Learn the real story behind the American invasion of Grenada, see the ruins of gorgeous cathedrals still devastated by Hurricane Ivan, snorkel for underwater statues inspired by Grenada’s slave trade and learn the story behind the tragic Leaper’s Hill (which includes the final resting place of the first known patient of sickle cell anemia). The assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop (whose name was given to the international airport) took place in recent history — 31 years ago this past Sunday (October 19) and the bullet holes can still be seen in the deteriorating Fort George. The island’s history is rich, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand the pivotal events that have shaped it.


Take a Dip
female swimmer exiting water on Paradise Beach in Carriacou near Grenada

Grand Anse may be the island’s best-known stretch of sand, but anywhere that seems safe for a swim is fair game in Grenada. From local favorite Bathway Beach, which has views resembling a Caribbean-style Cliffs of Moher, to the hideaway of Petit Anse, just behind a hotel’s bar and restaurant, it’s not difficult to find your own secret beach (and the water is typically warm and ripe for swimming). Particularly picturesque is Carriacou, a neighboring island just a ferry ride away. Aptly named, Paradise Beach is a bumpy taxi ride down back roads, but offers almost total seclusion and a view that makes it difficult to catch the 3:30 ferry back to Grenada.


The People
man playing guitar at annandale waterfall in grenada

A place can be the most scenic, culturally significant, accommodating destination with haute cuisine and diversions for every day of the week, but for me, it always comes down to the people. In Grenada they were friendly, welcoming and eager to show us their island (or to sing us a tune). I had the great opportunity to live locally and to stay with a family, but ventured out on my own using local buses and a little direction. It’s always slightly unsettling exploring somewhere new for the first time and learning your boundaries, but by the fish fry in Gouyave on our last night, when we ran into practically everyone we met on the entire trip there, the sense of pride and community wasn’t just obvious — it was infectious.

Six Quick Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Vacation
Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

– 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 destinations offering delicious fried dishes.

Would you rather…

… eat fresh-caught fish on a beach in Trinidad, or …

fried fish maracas beach trinidad



… nosh on falafel on the streets of Cairo, Egypt?

falafel egypt


As in much of the Caribbean, fried fish is a popular dish on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. In fact, there’s even an annual Trinidad Fish Festival featuring live music, an artisan street fair and, of course, plenty of fresh-caught fish. Falafel, a ball of deep-fried chickpeas or fava beans, is a common street food across the Middle East; it’s thought to have originated in Egypt, where you can still grab one of these tasty snacks wrapped in pita bread and garnished with tahini sauce.

Food and Travel: The Ultimate Guide

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 “solid gold” destinations.

Would you rather…

… explore Buddhist temples in Thailand, or …

wat phra that doi suthep, chiang mai



… lie on a stretch of golden sand in St. Lucia?

st lucia beach


The Buddhist temple pictured above is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it dates all the way back to the 1300s. Located on a mountain, it offers sweeping views of Chiang Mai. St. Lucia is home to a number of lovely beaches, including some with views of its famous Twin Pitons.

IT.com Readers Reveal What’s on Their Bucket Lists

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Imagining the islands of the Southern Caribbean, my mind drifted to turquoise waters of the deepest hue, white sandy beaches, towering resorts and those long-reaching divi divi trees, bent along the trade winds at a 90-degree angle. What I didn’t expect was prehistoric birds, desert terrain and such close ties to South America. During my time in the “A” and “C” islands of the ABC islands, I learned there’s way more to island life than sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Read on for six things that surprised me.

curacao willemstad pastel buildings


Migraines determined the color of the buildings in Curacao.
I’d heard rumors of a government decree requiring the famous facades of Willemstad to be painted in their photogenic pastels, and the locals maintain that this is the case. On a tour of the island, our guide stated that an early governor suffered so badly from migraines that to avoid the reflection of sunlight off of white buildings, he ordered the pastel paint jobs. Despite the initial intention, the scenic waterfront and historic buildings of Willemstad earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1997.

ostrich farm curacao


Curacao is home to the largest ostrich farm outside of Africa.
It’s not what might come to mind when you think of the mesmerizing pontoon bridge and downtown shopping of Curacao, but the island is home to the impressive Curacao Ostrich Farm — and a tour is worth your time. Knowledgeable guides will take you on a safari-style tour through the grounds, which also feature pigs, alligators and sheep that look like goats (all part of a sustainable system). At times you may get the feeling you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park Lite, but a gift shop (and a cafe that serves ostrich) remind you this is still, in part, tourist territory. To avoid an eyeroll from staff, pass on the temptation to ride an ostrich.

dushi sign curacao


The regional catchphrase means “sweet,” and is applied often.
The immature may have trouble stifling a laugh the first time they encounter the catchphrase popular across Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, but “dushi” is so popular with islanders that it’s become part of Curacao’s official tourism campaign. Meaning any combination of sweet, good and nice, dushi is a Papiamento word to describe literal sweetness, as in a local dish called pan dushi (meaning sweet bread), but also a way to describe the sweet way of island life in the Southern Caribbean. Dushi can also be used as a term of endearment.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

cactus aruba southern caribbean


Large portions of the islands feel more Southwestern than Caribbean.
Cruising the Caribbean you expect the beaches and the oceans of an undeniably spectacular blue, but go a small ways inland and it’s dirt, rocks and forests of cacti. I didn’t expect such a distinct difference in landscape; one minute resort domain and the next, you’re cast out among weather-beaten roads that could be in the middle of Arizona. Lizards crawl around rock formations overlooking cliffs that drop to the sea (a good indicator you’re still on an island and not in the Southwest), and cacti is used as a natural fence by residents. All of this manages to complement the islands’ more tropical Caribbean image.

floating market venezuela willemstad curacao


Curacao’s famous floating market is actually from Venezuela.
One of the main attractions in Willemstad is the floating market, docked each day in colorful boats and providing fresh fish and seafood. What I didn’t know prior to touring this marketplace is that all of the boats sail in daily from Venezuela, the fruit stands sell fruit from Venezuela and the craft market is run by Jamaicans — not a Curacao local in sight. Curacao is just about 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, making it a close neighbor of South America (the island was first settled by its native Arawak Amerindians). This relationship plays an important role in the culture of Curacao.

eiffel tower aruba casibari multilingual


The people are extremely multilingual.
Have you ever dreamed of speaking four languages? If you want your children to learn, move to one of the ABC islands. Islanders in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao seem to have a flair for languages, and it’s due to their complicated roots. The native dialect, Papiamento, is already a blend of Afrikaans, Portuguese, Spanish, English and other languages, all rolled into one. Because these are Dutch islands, locals also learn to speak Dutch and English in school. To add to that, it’s not uncommon for Spanish or German to be spoken in the home. After a primary education, many locals attend universities in the Netherlands and abroad.

– 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!

trinidad cubaIn this month’s featured review, reader Shareagift writes about visiting Cuba for the first time. “With its markets, colonial architecture and arid setting, Trinidad is reminiscent of North Africa and its souks,” writes Shareagift. “Trinidad is also home to one of the main Cuban music scenes. Each night the local bars are filled with drunk European tourists dancing independently of the rhythm while being spurred on by attractive locals. Like with most of Cuba, the atmosphere is warm and inviting.”

Read the rest of Shareagift’s review here: Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember … A Travel Guide. Shareagift has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– 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 that will get you up close and personal with unique marine wildlife.

Would you rather…

… snorkel or dive with green sea turtles in Bonaire, or …

green sea turtle bonaire underwater



… go whale watching in South Africa?

whale hermanus south africa


The southern Caribbean island of Bonaire is one of the world’s best spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. Along with green sea turtles, you may also see garden eels, frogfish, parrot fish, rays, whale sharks and much more. In South Africa, you’ll see the biggest marine animals of them all: whales! Visit between June and November to see migrating southern right whales; humpbacks and Bryde’s whales can also be spotted at select times of year.

Photos: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cuba cruiseOn my second night onboard the Canada-based Cuba Cruise, the first cruise line to offer sailings around the island, Captain Stathis Goumas added a caveat to his welcome speech that resonated with all of us onboard:

“If you want to experience a typical Caribbean cruise, then you have come on the wrong ship. Is that what you’d like?” he asked us. A chorus of “No!”

He went on: “Don’t expect cruise ship tourism that you might have experienced in other parts of the Caribbean: We’re leaving 2014, and stepping back to the 1950s.”

And so it has proved, just a few days in to my seven-night trip. The town of Antilla has nothing at the port, one tin shack which acts as the passport office, a disused gangway and the remains of another one, storks sitting on the exposed posts.

As we arrive from our tender, we’re met by a band of local musicians playing traditional Cuban music (“Guantanamera” is the crowd pleaser, but other tunes also make an appearance, including ones by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who was from this area).

Read Cuba Trip Reviews

We’re bundled into buses from Cubanacan — the state tourist organization — and driven off to our various excursions. In an hour and a half we pass maybe five cars, a truck, a school bus and a tourist bus or two. The primary means of transport is horse-drawn cart or donkey.

And yet: front porches are immaculate. There is no sign of rubbish anywhere. Kids are smartly dressed in school uniform. The villages we drive through seem lively; people wave as we drive by.

It’s a landscape of sugarcane, much like Jamaica, and that’s the primary source of income around these parts. We learn that up until the mid-90s the sugarcane was transported around the island by steam train. It’s a far cry from Havana, that’s for sure.

Cuba Cruise, which leases Louis Cristal ship from Louis Cruises, is the very first cruise line to offer such a service in this mysterious country. It’s such a significant development for Cuba’s tourism that Fidel Castro’s son was invited onboard for dinner as guest of honor on our first evening, before we departed Havana.

I’ve learned that Cuba Cruise tried something similar five years ago, but too much red tape prevented it from happening. Launching an operation like this is always going to have its challenges. The biggest is perhaps the most obvious: you can’t source the biggest cruise market in the world, and the one on your doorstep: the United States.

Instead Cuba Cruise has concentrated on Canada, Europe and the Far East, and onboard we have mainly Canadians, Koreans, Chinese and then a smattering of Europeans — Brits, French, Germans, Greeks and Italians. There is also a U.S. educational group and two U.S. citizens, who got on in Jamaica’s Montego Bay and wish to remain nameless.

So far, everyone we’ve met on our tours is welcoming. There’s no hint of the weariness that you notice in other Caribbean destinations: instead there’s a charm, and a real sense of gratefulness that we have chosen to visit here.

Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

The areas that we go to are not traditional Cuba, and could leave you with a poor impression if you were on a more common all-inclusive land vacation. Take Guardalavaca Beach, which has an all-inclusive resort and a slightly tacky flea market. This area was first developed for tourism back in the 1960s, when Cuba welcomed Russians from the former Soviet Union, and many Soviet-era apartment blocks and the two main hotels were built to cater for the influx.

cuba farmer car cigarLuckily Cuba Cruise has made some adjustments to get us beyond the obvious. Our final stop is the one I will remember: a traditional farm, where we stroll through the farmer’s banana plantation, suck on sugarcane pulled from the ground and eat a sweet banana, before enjoying a local snack and a strong coffee.

The farmer keeps a Plymouth car from 1948 in his garage and assures us that he still drives it every day from his house to the market and back. To prove the point he starts up the engine and poses beside it, chomping a fat cigar.

It’s quite overwhelming. But if you’re intrigued, hurry up and go; it’s changing as you read this.

– written by Adam Coulter