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

colmar france at night


Population: 66 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: S’il vous plait (please)

Fun Fact: When the Nazis occupied Paris during WWII, the French resistance cut the cables of the elevators in the Eiffel Tower so that Hitler would have to climb the stairs (some 1,500 of them!) if he wanted to get to the top.

We Recommend: Capture the City of Lights with a Paris photography tour.

12 Best France Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.

My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.

svalbard polar bear


I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.

Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

HITS
Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.

svalbard reindeer


Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.

Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.

MISSES
Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.

svalbard hike


Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Are you interested in traveling to Svalbard?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every so often I wander over to Vimeo, a video-sharing site that’s one of my favorite sources for travel inspiration. I know that every time I visit I’ll find myself drooling over films from exotic locations around the world.

One of my latest discoveries is this poignant look at Myanmar (Burma), which captures fishermen rowing their boats, children at play and other scenes of everyday life:



Next we head to Istanbul, where this filmmaker lovingly zooms in on the city’s mosques, mosaics and minarets:



Ever wondered what it might be like to swim with jellyfish? You can try it at Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, where the creatures do sting, but not powerfully enough to harm humans. The resulting footage is mesmerizing:



Finally, here’s an intriguing look at Egypt from a filmmaker who wanted to counter some of the negative media coverage the Middle East’s gotten over the past few years:



Okay, I’m ready to plan my next trip. How about you?

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

kilkenny castle ireland


Population: 4.8 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: Slainte (cheers — a toast)

Fun Fact: A popular legend about St. Patrick, the country’s patron saint, is that he banished snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century. However, researchers at the National Museum of Ireland have pooh-poohed this legend because there is no fossil evidence that snakes ever lived in Ireland in the first place.

We Recommend: Channel your inner royal by spending the night in a castle.

12 Best Ireland Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

amsterdam canal housesWe recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. We received a number of excellent submissions, detailing everything from excursions in Barbados to a whirlwind weekend in Bucharest.

Choosing the best review was a true challenge, but in the end we went with Christian Dew’s dispatch from the Netherlands, Going Dutch. Here’s an excerpt:

“I am a frequent visitor of the Netherlands and I love all things Dutch. Born and raised in America, a southern girl with a wanderlust mind, the Netherlands has a special place in my heart. Have you ever wanted to see the North Sea? Take a train through the Dutch countryside? Visit an old windmill? Go to a concert to see one of your favorite artists? Then I invite you to come and join me on this reading adventure of Going Dutch.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

A Trip Underground, Running from Killer Coconuts and Tripped by a Turtle by Andrea MacEachern: “The others in my group went in one direction and I walked in another, solo through the maze of paths, [enjoying] the serene sounds of leaves blowing softly in the wind and birds chirping until suddenly, that peacefulness was shattered by a loud, crashing thud followed by shouting. I thought I was alone in that area but on the other side of the trees to the right of me, a couple from my tour was enjoying a leisurely stroll, just like I was, when a coconut came crashing to the ground about a foot away from the man’s head.”

Fall family trip to Italy, France and Spain via cruise ship by Nancy Lorentson: “Day three was the Vatican. We had gotten self-guided tour tickets online … 20-something dollars each, which is well worth it as the lines are long. You go in the back door museum entrance and we saw the entire museum. Try to get there at opening when it is less crowded.”

Iceland During the Winter by Rae Ann Wright: “Here we enjoyed the first half of a full ‘Culinary Coastal and Countryside’ tour. We were able to focus on the seaside and materials from the sea as well as the first microbrewery in Iceland. All the producers we visited were small family firms, and for some the knowledge had traveled from generation to generation. They offered us to taste fresh fish, local microbrewery beer and salted cod.”

Feeling inspired? Share advice from your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

prague czech republic


Population: 10.6 million

Currency: Czech koruna

Phrase to Know: Dobry den (hello/good day)

Fun Fact: The Czech people consume more beer per capita than anyone else in the world, beating out the Irish in second place.

We Recommend: Join the locals in foraging for wild mushrooms, a popular hobby during the summer and fall in the Czech Republic.

10 Best Czech Republic Experiences

Have you been to the Czech Republic? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

alhambra spain


Population: 47.7 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: Buenos dias, buenas tardes and buenas noches (good morning, good afternoon and good evening)

Fun Fact: Spain’s most bizarre (and messiest) tradition may be the annual Tomatina Festival near Valencia, in which thousands of participants fling ripe tomatoes at each other.

We Recommend: Sleep in a parador — a historical building, such as a monastery or Moorish fort, that’s been turned into a luxury hotel.

10 Best Spain Experiences

Have you been to Spain? 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!

perpignan wineIn this month’s featured review, reader Kirsten Bukager travels to southern France to see what it’s really like to live and work at a winery. “I taste grapes, while [the owner] watches me intently and asks if I can taste the difference. She teaches me how to use my tastebuds, which are clearly untrained compared to hers. I taste and taste until I feel light-headed. It is embarrassing to admit when I can’t taste the differences, but at the same time it is fascinating to hear Lèia talk, and I am pleased to see her passion.”

Read the rest of Kirsten’s review here: Three days internship as winemaker in Perpignan, France. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Sitting at my desk in New Jersey with the temperature hovering just below the freezing point, it’s hard to believe that spring has arrived. But spring it is, and people around the world will soon be celebrating the season of renewal.

Spring is a perfect time to travel in many destinations. Not only will you find smaller crowds and possibly even pay less (since high tourist season in many places doesn’t start until summer), but you may also stumble upon unique cultural celebrations such as the ones below.

Here are a few spring festivals from around the world to watch out for if you’re ever in the neighborhood around the time of the spring equinox.

las fallas festival


Las Fallas Festival: Valencia, Spain
A spring festival celebrating St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the origins of Las Fallas go back in time to the days when wooden lamps, called parots, were needed to light carpenters’ workshops during the winter. As spring — and St. Joseph’s Day (the patron saint of carpenters) — neared, workers ceremoniously burned the parots, which were no longer needed for light. Over the centuries, the ceremony evolved into a five-day celebration involving the creation and eventual burning of ninots: huge, colorful cardboard, wood, papier-mache and plaster statues. The ninots remain on display for five days until March 19, when at midnight they are all set aflame, except for one chosen by popular vote and then exhibited at a local museum with others from years past.

Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Whuppity Scoorie: Lanark, Scotland
The arrival of spring is celebrating in the small town of Lanark, Scotland, on March 1 with the delightfully named Whuppity Scoorie. During this celebration, local children gather at sunrise and run around the local church three times, making noise and swirling paper balls on strings around their heads. After the third lap, the kids race to gather up coins thrown by local assemblymen. No one is quite sure how the ritual began; the first written descriptions date back to the late 19th century.

junii brasovului


Junii Brasovului: Brasov, Romania
The “Youth of Brasov” festival is held on the Sunday after Eastern Orthodox Easter every year and involves seven groups of young men bedecked in Romanian folk costumes and uniforms riding colorfully decorated horses through the streets of the city. The parade also features traditional Romanian songs and dances, and culminates in each of the men throwing a scepter into the air to see who can hurl it the highest. The parade finally works its way up to a mountain field above the city where a community barbecue is held. The earliest written records of the ritual parade date back to 1728.

12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

Nowruz: Iran
Nowruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is also considered the beginning of the new year in the Persian calendar. It is a secular holiday of hope and rebirth, though its origins trace back to Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion of ancient Persia. It is celebrated in Iran, as well as Azerbaijan and most of the “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Rituals typically involve building bonfires to jump over them.

holi india


Holi, India
Also known as the festival of colors, Holi is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated annually as the spring equinox approaches. The ceremony represents the arrival of spring, the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. It is a happy occasion marked by singing, dancing and a free-for-all of color, where participants do their best to paint others with dry colored powders and colored water. Holi dates back as far as the fourth century, though it may in fact be older.

What spring celebrations do you know of around the world?

— written by Dori Saltzman