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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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!

london big ben at nightIn this month’s featured review, reader Adrienne L. shares impressions from her first visit to the famous Harrods department store: “To describe it as massive would be an understatement. It boasts floor after floor of wonderful merchandise, from the scandalously expensive to the delightfully kitschy,” writes Adrienne. “The store personnel were quite helpful and gave us much-needed maps of the store. The highlight for us was visiting the Food Halls — several massive rooms chock-full of beautifully displayed food from all over the world. Choices included meat pies, seafood, cheeses, charcuterie, desserts, olives, pate, caviar and much more.”

Read the rest of Adrienne’s review here: A London Love Story. Adrienne has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– 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 cities with over-the-top architecture.

Would you rather…

… check out Gaudi’s fantastical visions in Barcelona, or …

parc guell gaudi barcelona



… experience the decadence of Dubai?

dubai skyline uae


Visitors to Barcelona can’t miss the influence of architect Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsically designed buildings include the eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia church, the colorful Casa Batllo and the flowing lines of Parc Guell, pictured above. Dubai is home to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper; Burj Al Arab, the first hotel to proclaim itself a “seven-star” property; and numerous other lavish buildings.

Best Cities for Architecture Buffs
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

mottarone italyI’ve made plenty of mistakes while traveling. I’ve forgotten everything from a computer charger to a camera, and I’ve scheduled flights so close together that more than once I’ve pulled what I call “the ‘Home Alone’ run,” in which I scurry through the airport like the McCallisters, just barely making it to the gate before it closes.

On a recent trip to Italy, I made one of my biggest mistakes yet — but it led to one of my fondest travel memories to date.

During a trip to Lake Maggiore, a newfound friend and I decided to take a cable car to the top of Mottarone, a mountain that overlooks the lake and the town of Stresa. The experience been recommended to us by a few locals, though one woman warned us not to miss the last ride down the mountain.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Once there, we were rewarded with hiking trails and spectacular views (we could see seven different lakes and even a bit of Switzerland in the distance). We enjoyed ourselves so much that time flew quickly, and guess what? We missed the last ride down.

After we got past the initial “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” we found our way to the nearest business — actually, the only business; the restaurant was the only sign of civilization nearby. The owner, who barely spoke English, made a quick call, then told us it would be an hour before we could even get a taxi; after that, it would be at least a 45-minute drive and 60 euros back to our hotel. We were supposed to meet a group of friends for our last dinner together in Italy in an hour. We’d never make it.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

My friend ordered a beer and started chatting with the owner. Still in a state of panic, I grabbed a beer too, and, at her order, sat down to “try to relax.”

The owner kindly offered us plates of meat, cheese and bread on the house, and began to tell us about himself. It turned out he was the former mayor of Stresa, and he planned to run for office again. The restaurant he owned dated back several generations, and his mother, who also spoke to us, still cooked up some of the area’s best dishes (“People like the meatballs,” she said). The family also owned a hotel (adjacent to the restaurant) that was popular during ski season.

Caught up in conversation, it was actually disappointing to leave when the taxi driver finally arrived. As he whisked the car down hairpin turns, my friend and I agreed: this unexpected conversation with the locals was travel at its best, and an experience neither of us would forget.

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

What’s the best travel mistake you ever made?

– written by Amanda Geronikos

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 places that art fans would love to explore.

Would you rather…

… see the sculptures in Vigeland Park, Oslo, or …

vigeland park oslo



… wander the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City?

metropolitan museum of art new york


The incredible human sculptures in Vigeland Park helped land Oslo on our list of The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the largest and most famous art museum in a city that has dozens of them. Allow a day just to get a taste.

10 Best Norway Experiences

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 the two countries that played in yesterday’s World Cup final.

Would you rather…

… explore the medieval villages of Germany, or …

rothenburg ob der tauber



… see the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina?

perito moreno glacier argentina


Pictured above is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of Germany’s most picture-perfect medieval villages. It’s located in Bavaria along the Romantic Road. Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the jewels of the Patagonia region.

Photos: 12 Best Germany Experiences

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 unique geological formations.

Would you rather…

… visit an ice cave in Vatnajokull, Iceland, or …

ice cave vatnajokull iceland



… swim in a cenote in Mexico?

ik kil cenote chichen itza mexico


Over the winter months, visitors to southern Iceland can get a one-of-a-kind glimpse of Vatnajokull Glacier by taking a tour of its ice caves with a tour company such as Extreme Iceland or LocalGuide.is. Cenotes — sinkholes where groundwater has been exposed — are common in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; pictured above is one of the most popular, Ik-Kil, located in Chichen Itza.

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

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

ilulissat ice fjord greenlandGreenland is the world’s largest island, but it’s also one of the most remote, with most of its 836,000 square miles buried under a massive layer of ice all year round. Exploring Greenland requires warm clothing and a sense of adventure. You’ll also need a bit of extra money; because roads don’t connect the isolated towns and villages here, your only transportation options are expensive flights and ferries.

The most convenient choice is to visit Greenland by cruise ship. That’s what I did on a recent trip aboard the Fram, a 256-passenger expedition vessel run by the Norway-based Hurtigruten line. I chose the “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, one of several summer sailings from Hurtigruten. (Another itinerary later this summer includes the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.)

During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience in Greenland. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.

HITS
The Itinerary: The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Local Experiences: In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language, but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.

Enrichment: Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.

Staff: From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.

MISSES
Missed Calls: We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) It was a reminder that expedition cruises to remote parts of the world always come with a little unpredictability. Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.

Buffet Meals: Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)

Internet Access: During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed. Of course, not everyone wants to get online during their vacation, but if you do, for now you’ll have to rely on your phone or be out of touch completely.

See Our Latest Cruise Deals

– 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 put you in a “purple haze.”

Would you rather…

… wander through lavender fields in Provence, France, or …

lavender field provence france



… see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at sunset?

imperial palace tokyo japan


The Provence region of France is well known for its sweet-smelling lavender fields, which bloom throughout the summer months (usually peaking in July). The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is home to the Emperor of Japan; on the grounds are a museum, gardens, a moat and the remains of Edo Castle.

12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

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 delicious light bites.

Would you rather…

… nibble on fresh spring rolls in Vietnam, or …

spring rolls vietnam



… nosh on tapas in Spain?

spanish tapas spain


Wrapped in delicate rice paper and stuffed with a tasty mix of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon and either pork or shrimp, spring rolls are a must-try when visiting Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, tapas encompass a range of bite-size appetizers or snacks in Spain, ranging from fried squid to cured cheese topped with anchovies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
Beyond Restaurants: 8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter