Home

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Forums Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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

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 quiet, colorful street in Trinidad, Cuba.

trinidad cuba horse street


Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

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.)

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

kiribati beachThe deserted beach. The pristine nature trail. The hushed art gallery. The view of a spectacular landmark unspoiled by crowds. It’s something many travelers dream of having: a magnificent travel experience all to oneself.

Considering that more than one billion tourists traveled internationally last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), it’s a lot more likely that you’ll find yourself standing in long lines, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the beach and jostling fellow travelers at overcrowded museums — unless you travel to one of these 25 countries.

Gunnar Garfors, globetrotter and CEO of Norwegian Mobile TV Co., used UNWTO data to compile a list of the 25 least visited countries in the world. While the most popular destination for tourism, France, sees some 79.5 million visitors a year, the countries on Garfors’ list see numbers in the thousands, or even hundreds. Taking home the honors as the least traveled spot is the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which was visited by a measly 200 people in 2011.

Sweet Spots to Stay in Paris

Like Nauru, many of the countries on the list are there because they’re small and difficult to get to (Tuvalu, Kiribati). Others have faced recent violence and are generally considered unsafe for tourists (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone). Still others aren’t so much difficult to get to as difficult to get into (Bhutan and North Korea, where visas are required and travelers must arrange for a guide rather than touring independently). Yet Garfors has visited 21 of the 25, and returned with fascinating tips and stories to share.

Personally, I’m only one for 25. I’ve been to No. 25, Dominica, the sleepy Caribbean island that’s better known for its lush rain forest trails and waterfalls than for its beaches. It was worth the trip — my partner and I took several hikes without seeing another soul. As for the other 24 countries … well, I’d better get traveling.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

How many of the least visited countries have you been to?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

santo domingo dominican republicBefore my recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was warned by a number of colleagues, relatives and friends (including one who’s Dominican) that I should be careful. Not just “don’t drink the water” careful, but “wear no jewelry, don’t make eye contact and don’t even think about going outside at night” careful. The good news: I survived my trip safe and sound. But with so many dire warnings, I didn’t stop to consider some of the more practical (and less dangerous) issues I might encounter.

Rental Car Runaround
Scenario: Even though I’d reserved a rental car ahead of time for pickup at the airport, it still took an hour for the paperwork to go through — and I was the only customer.

Lesson: Because of differences in languages and processing methods, you should always leave extra time for things like this, especially in places with a slower pace of life.

Scenario: After the first time I stopped to refuel, the car wouldn’t start. I called the rental agency, who told me that the vehicle’s keyless entry safety feature was prohibiting the engine from turning over. I clicked a few buttons, and the car started right up.

Lesson: Ask if there’s anything specific you should know about the car before you leave the rental agency. Ask also for a phone number where you can reach someone if you have problems (and keep a phrasebook handy in case the person on the other end doesn’t speak your language).

The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental

Scenario: On the day I flew home, I tried to return the rental car an hour earlier than scheduled — but nobody was at the desk. I waited 20 minutes before calling the customer service number again. I was told that because I was an hour early, nobody would be there to take the key. I was instructed to hide it behind the computer at the rental counter.

Lesson: In other countries, not all businesses are open during what we would consider “normal” operating hours. This is especially true in locations that don’t see many tourists. Treat rental car reservations like doctor’s appointments: show up only at the times you specify for rental and return.

GPS Guffaw
Scenario: While driving from the airport to my hotel, the GPS in my rental car kept screaming at me to “turn right” when no right turns were present, leaving me lost in Santo Domingo for two hours. I called my hotel’s front desk, and they were able to get me on the right path.

Lesson: Don’t rely entirely on technology when traveling. If possible, find and print directions to take with you in case your cell phone or GPS gets lost, breaks or dies along the way. And carry the phone number of someone at your destination in case you find yourself in a pinch.

3 C’s: Credit Cards, Currency and Cell Phones
Scenario: My credit card was denied when I tried to purchase snacks. I paid with cash and promptly called the company to discuss the problem. (I always call to alert my bank and my credit card company before traveling to avoid having my cards blocked when I need them most.) I was told that some card companies won’t allow transactions in certain locations if they’re considered “high-risk.”

Lesson: Sure, you know to tell your card company that you’ll be globetrotting, but it’s also a good idea to bone up on its policies regarding the specific places you’re visiting. Keep the company’s phone number handy and carry cash as a backup.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Scenario: On my last day, I made a wrong turn on the way to the airport. (Thanks again, GPS.) I found myself at a pesos-only tollbooth (having purposefully gotten rid of my remaining pesos immediately prior) and conjured up my high-school Spanish to ask if they’d accept U.S. dollars. When two heavily armed police came out of the booth, I took that as a firm “no.” But one officer did offer me 500 pesos — enough for the toll — in exchange for a $20 bill. He made a $10 profit on the deal, but you don’t refuse a man with a machine gun when he stands in the way of your flight back to civilization.

Lesson: Always carry enough local currency to get you through end of your trip. Airports usually offer exchange services, so don’t worry about having too much leftover cash.

Scenario: Although I added international texting and data coverage to my cell phone plan before embarking on this adventure, I turned down the international calling plan since I didn’t think I’d use it. But with all my hapless calls to the hotel, car rental agency and credit card company, I used quite a few minutes. At $2.95 a pop, I’m now facing a pretty nasty bill.

Lesson: Always, always say yes to a calling plan. If you run into trouble, phone calls are almost always your best means of finding help. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re traveling abroad, your phone will be roaming the second it connects to a network, even if you don’t make any calls. Because service can be spotty in some locations, ask your carrier about availability and consider purchasing a prepaid phone when you arrive at your destination.

International Cell Phone Guide

–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 we’re thinking warm, tropical thoughts with this photo of swimmers at Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica.

dunns river falls jamaica waterfall


Jamaica Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

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.)

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

childSometimes my mind wanders back to the haze of that careless week in the Caribbean. Floating through the hotel pool (my pink visor, my white tiger bathing suit). Throwing breakfast’s crumbs from the balcony to the birds in the bushes below. Posing near a hibiscus as big as my head. I spent part of my time with a vacationing Brit at the same hotel, and part of it with a local boy. I don’t quite remember either of their names, but the Brit spent most of his days in his underwear (the pictures are starting to fade, with curled-up edges, but they still make me smile).

Memories can be a trip of their own, especially first memories. My first memory was a travel memory — I was about 2 1/2 when my parents took me to Barbados.

Because I was an only child, my younger years were well documented. Paging through the photo albums, my memory has certainly been jogged (the school events, the neon bows). But from the best that I can judge, the clips that come to me from Barbados are the real thing, not a rendering. Surprisingly, my near-drowning experience in the hotel pool left less of an impression than the sweet, melting consolation of the Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar I was offered afterward. The only other sense I connect to this first international (and conscious) experience is the sound of steel drums. I can’t hear that light distinctive chime without being carried back. For many, it’s a call back to the tropical, the paradisiacal, the exotic; and for me, they are all of that melded with my first mysterious impressions of this earth.

Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos

I’m sure it wasn’t my parents’ overarching plan to instill a lifelong wanderlust in me from 31 months, but it’s them I have to thank for exposing me to the world from such a young age, and continuing to support that plunge into the unknown. Whether the unknown is life or a new country, for me it all seems to meet at the same place in my memories.

What was your first travel memory? Don’t feel the need to stretch back to diapers! Crammed inside a hot car on a family roadtrip? Flying for a school competition? Shake up those reminiscences and share them in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel