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!
In this month’s winning review, a traveler enjoys an autumn trip to the capital of Ukraine, where she meets babushkas, visits monasteries and learns about recent political developments from a local guide. “Natasha … emotionally recalls the significant events and sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of the riot police,” writes Lesley Williamson. “Hundreds of these young men’s portraits are honored with flowers and candles and for Natasha, such a public tribute to the nation’s heroes is poignant evidence that Ukraine is changing and that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing itself with its own unique identity.”
Here’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)
Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.
No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)
Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.
Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.
Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:
For travelers looking to explore beyond planet Earth, there’s a new frontier in sight. A hotel in Zurich has just opened a brand-new Space Suite designed to resemble a space station, reports CNN.
The five-star Kameha Grand Zurich hired German artist Michael Najjar to design the suite, which features a “floating” bed, photos of astronauts, spotlights that resemble rocket engines and a library of space-themed books and films. An automated female voice inspired by the film “Dark Star” greets guests as they enter. You can even tune into NASA TV or a live stream from the International Space Station.
The video below offers a look around the suite:
A stay on the space station — er, in the Space Suite — doesn’t come cheap, starting at 1845 Swiss francs a night (approximately $1,858 USD) for a package that includes accommodations, breakfast, “space amenities” and an invitation to meet the designer of the suite. But perhaps the coolest inclusion is the opportunity to try an Airbus A320 flight simulator for an hour, as well as take a turn skydiving inside a vertical wind tunnel.
It’s about as close to space as you can get without signing up for a trip with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to someday bring ordinary humans into space. (Ordinary humans who can afford the $250,000 price tag, that is.)
Dust off your floppy safari hat and polish your binoculars: Botswana is the hottest travel destination for 2016.
Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet selected the southern Africa safari destination as the No. 1 country to visit in 2016 in its annual Best in Travel survey. The list compiles the biggest travel trends, destinations, events and experiences in the world in the coming year.
Botswana topped the list because of its resplendent wildlife viewing. But it’s also celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence in 2016, making it one of Africa’s most thriving and stable nations. It’s “wild Africa at its best,” the Lonely Planet staff proclaimed.
Other countries making the top five are Japan, the United States, Palau and Latvia.
The top-rated region for 2016 is Transylvania, Romania — not just for castles and vampire lore but also for wildlife watching and an up-and-coming art scene. Other top regions include West Iceland, the Valle de Vinales in Cuba, the Italian wine-producing region of Friuli and Waiheke Island, New Zealand.
The No. 1 city for 2016 is Kotor, Montenegro, which was touted for its gorgeous harbors. Other top cities include Quito, Ecuador, a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for being both relaxed and vibrant; Dublin, which has bounced back from the global recession; George Town, Malaysia, which is hot among foodies into the street vendor scene; and Rotterdam, Netherlands, which opened a humongous indoor food market last year.
On the “new openings in 2016” list are Disney’s first resort in China, a manmade surf lagoon in Wales and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The website has some other fun lists too, including best silent retreats (the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California), favorite final frontiers (the dense jungle-entwined Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama) and best luxe experiences for budget travelers (thermal baths in Iceland).
Last month, we challenged our readers to review a recent trip for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. The submissions we received were fascinating, detailing journeys to the temples of Cambodia, the lakes of Slovenia and the remote reaches of the Grand Canyon.
Choosing the best review was difficult, but in the end we went with Adrienne Lee’s Dazzling Dubai. Here’s an excerpt:
“Since we arrived at night, the city was all lit up with mile after mile of sparkling skyscrapers that could only be described as dazzling. We used that word daily as we discovered the wonders that Dubai has to offer.” Read the rest!
While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:
Angkor Wat: Incredibly Spiritual and Moving by Amelia Hesson: “We visited [Ta Prohm] early in the morning before any other tourists visited, making it the most serene of all temples for us. It is called the King of Trees because it is in pristine untouched condition, covered with crumbling stones and over powering trees. This was a very large temple, almost as large as Angkor Wat, and has not been repaired at all. The only thing done to this magnificent temple has been to build wooden stairs around the temple, as well as stairs climbing up to the top and down to the depths of this most sacred place. We were blown away by its majesty and loved seeing it in its natural state of crumbling and dis-repair.”
The Grand Canyon’s Most Remote Village by vagabondginger: “While millions visit the Grand Canyon each year, only a few thousand make the trek to this smallest Indian nation in America. The only way to get there is on foot, by horse or by helicopter. These people have lived here over 800 years and at one time the tribe was forced by the US government to give up most of their land, but almost 100 years later much of it was regained even though it is now a National Park. Of the 650 member tribe 450 live here and are self governing and they do not receive any US government stipends. They now rely heavily on tourism although they seem to resent it. This is their home we are trekking into and they consider their land to be sacred.”
Walks of Lake Bled & Lake Bohinj, Slovenia by Susan Burger: “Lake Bohinj, with steep mountains projecting straight up from the edges, is located in the Triglav National Park, and is even more serene and natural than Lake Bled. We rode the cable car to the top of Mount Vogel for a panoramic view of the surrounding Julian Alps and Mount Triglav (9,400 ft), the highest peak in Slovenia. It is also a good starting point for hiking trails, including the Bohinj cheese trail which offers samples of the traditionally made cheese to hikers starting late June.”
Thanks to the strengthening U.S. dollar and the weakening euro, trips across the pond are getting more affordable — which has many of us daydreaming about sipping espressos in Italy or listening to traditional music at a pub in Ireland. But which European cities are the biggest draw?
HomeAway, a vacation rental site listing homes and apartments around the world, recently answered that question for us. The company delved into its search data to find out which European cities generated the most vacation rental inquiries from Americans between July and September 2015. The winner: Paris, followed closely by Amsterdam.
HomeAway examined the booking preferences in nine different major metro areas around the United States, identifying the top two most requested European destinations in each. Paris was the top choice in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Seattle, while Amsterdam won out in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Rome was another popular pick, appearing second on the lists for three different U.S. markets (San Francisco, D.C. and Chicago).
There were a few outliers as well; New Yorkers and Philadelphians showed interest in Italy’s Amalfi Coast, while folks in Los Angeles, perhaps sick of all that sunshine, were hankering for a trip to Dublin.
It’s impossible to know for sure why certain destinations are more popular in some areas than others, but we suspect that the availability of affordable flights plays a role. For example, Boston’s number one pick was Reykjavik, and both Icelandair and WOW Air offer cheap nonstop flights there from Beantown. (Bostonians, take note: We found an incredible $374 roundtrip fare from WOW Air for an off-peak itinerary next month. Northern lights, anyone?)
Flights aside, it’s not hard to explain the popularity of Paris and Amsterdam, especially for vacation rentals. Imagine setting forth from your flat in Montmartre to pick up a freshly baked croissant from the patisserie on the corner, or parking your bike on your balcony after a day riding along Amsterdam’s canals. Yes, please!
Check out HomeAway’s full list of popular cities below — and tell us which European destination you’d most like to visit.
New York Metro Area
2. Amalfi Coast
Boston Metro Area
Los Angeles Metro Area
San Francisco Metro Area
Washington D.C. Metro Area
Chicago Metro Area
Philadelphia Metro Area
1. Amalfi Coast
Dallas/Fort Worth Metro Area
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!
In this month’s winning review, a pair of retirees enjoy hiking along the South West Coast Path on the Jurassic Coast of England — powering through some occasionally iffy weather. “Once we arrived at the Old Harry Rocks, we were completely drenched,” write Carolyn Boyle. “However, we needed to walk further along the path in the direction of Swanage to have better views of the cliffs, the rocks and other offshore chalk formations, such as the Pinnacles. Despite the deluge, the views were stunning.”
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: 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.
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.
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 accidental discovery of a Stonehenge “on steroids” just two miles from the famed stone monument in England has archeology fans wondering when they’ll get to see the new site. Sadly, it won’t likely be anytime soon.
Using radar and other scanning technologies, researchers from the Stonehedge Hidden Landscapes Project announced on Monday that they practically tripped over a “superhenge” less than two miles from the more famous set of rocks. With nearly 100 buried but standing stones measuring up to about 15 feet tall, the site at Durrington Walls is one of the largest such sites ever discovered and is at least five times larger than Stonehenge, reports the BBC.
You can get an idea of what the site may have originally looked like by watching the video below.
“We don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new, and the scale is extraordinary,” said project co-leader Vince Gaffney, adding that the discovery is “archeology on steroids.”
What’s to be done with the site — which is more than 1,600 feet in diameter and is less than a two-hour drive from London — remains to be seen. The Guardian reports that researchers will continue to conduct analysis and consider proposals. They’ll need to take costs into consideration, not to mention that part of the site is on privately owned land. (No doubt those landowners are salivating at the moment.) And expansion plans are underway for a highway that runs nearby, which could wreak havoc on archeological excavation plans.
So, while a portion of the site will likely be excavated, attracting some of the 1.2 million people who visit Stonehenge each year, there are no plans at the moment to unearth the whole site.
Still, there are other noteworthy archeological sites near Stonehenge that most travelers skip, including Marden Henge and Avebury.
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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.