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Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.

Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.

viking star cruise ship


1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.

2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.

Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.

3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.

viking star explorers lounge


4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.

5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).

viking star infinity pool hot tub


Caveats
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.

Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.

Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.

On the first day of a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I found myself elbow to elbow with a mob of fellow tourists outside Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, one of the city’s most famous attractions. A few hours later, I shouldered through the hordes at a Christmas market in front of the cathedral. And the next day I discovered a line stretching out the door of the basilica in Montserrat (a popular day trip from Barcelona), where hundreds of travelers waited to touch the hand of the revered Black Madonna. I’d hoped to miss out on crowds by traveling in early December, part of Spain’s winter low season, but that wasn’t the case — with one exception.

During an hour and a half at Pedralbes Monastery, located in a leafy residential area just a 15-minute subway ride from the center of the city, I wandered through the world’s largest Gothic cloister, peered into small cells where nuns once embroidered and prayed, and marveled over a chapel adorned with colorful 14th-century frescoes. The best part? I had this serene spot almost entirely to myself.

pedralbes monastery cloister barcelona


Known in Catalan as Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes, the monastery was founded in 1327 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a home for the Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns. While the sisters lived lives of quiet contemplation, they also accumulated a surprising number of religious treasures, from altarpieces and alabaster sculptures to gold and silver chalices. (My favorite? The massive, richly illustrated choir books.) Many of these artifacts are on display under the vaulted ceiling of what was once the nuns’ dormitory.

As you walk through the monastery, you’ll see the sepulcher of Queen Elisenda, the refectory where the nuns took their meals, the abbey room (the oldest part of the building) and even the kitchen, where I loved the colorful tiles added in the 19th century. It’s easy to imagine what life may have been like here, especially when you stand in the center of the cloister with its trees, fountains and medicinal garden. It’s a perfect place for quiet contemplation — and a balm to anyone seeking to escape the crowds at Barcelona’s top tourist spots.

pedralbes monastery fresco barcelona


To reach the monastery, you can take the FGC train (which connects easily to the Metro) from Placa Catalunya to the Reina Elisenda station, a 10- to 15-minute walk from Pedralbes. Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus also runs out to the monastery. Note that the church attached to the monastery is accessed via a different entrance and has more limited hours, so you may want to stop there first to make sure you don’t miss out.

Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Do you know any other under-the-radar attractions in Barcelona? Share them in the comments!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Okay, so winter technically hasn’t even officially arrived yet — but we’re already getting sick of short, gray days and long, dark nights. And we’ve still got several months to go!

To cheer ourselves up on days like these, we naturally turn our thoughts to thoughts of travel. Today we’re mentally transporting ourselves to the following vibrant destinations as an escape from the dreary winter landscapes here at home.

burano italy


The charming little fishing village of Burano, located in the Venetian Lagoon, is painted every color of the rainbow.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

little india singapore


Get a taste of another culture in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, where you can visit a temple, browse bustling markets and nosh on authentic Indian dishes.

Singapore City Guide

keukenhof lisse netherlands tulips spring


Now is a perfect time to book a spring trip to see the magnificent Keukenhof gardens in Holland, which are only open for a couple of months a year.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens

trinidad cuba classic car


With its fascinating culture, vibrant cities and warm sunshine, Cuba will cure any case of the winter blahs.

A Walking Tour of Old Havana

Where are you planning to travel this winter? (And if you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz!)

— 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!

st michael's monastery kiev 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.”

Read the rest of Lesley’s review here: Kiev: golden domes, shimmering spires and bohemian spirits of freedom. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

peace for parisHere’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.)

United Airlines Might Be the First Brand to Actually Drop a ‘Hidden’ Flying Fee
Here’s more welcome news on the fee front, this time from Travel + Leisure, which reports that United Airlines recently removed its rebooking fee. Passengers used to have to pay $50 to change their flight due to an unplanned event such as illness. Let’s hope more airlines follow suit.

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:


— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

Photos: 10 Best Switzerland Experiences

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.)

Would you want to stay in the Space Suite?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

Planning an African Safari

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).

Where do you plan to travel in 2016?

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

dubai aerial viewLast 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.”

Feeling inspired? Read more trip reviews or share advice from your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

eiffel tower flowers paris


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!

canal bikes amsterdam


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
1. Amsterdam
2. Amalfi Coast

Boston Metro Area
1. Reykjavik
2. Munich

Los Angeles Metro Area
1. Amsterdam
2. Dublin

San Francisco Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Rome

Washington D.C. Metro Area
1. Amsterdam
2. Rome

Chicago Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Rome

Philadelphia Metro Area
1. Amalfi Coast
2. Paris

Dallas/Fort Worth Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Amsterdam

Seattle Metro Area
1. Paris
2. Amsterdam

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

— 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!

south west coast path england 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.”

Read the rest of Carolyn’s review here: Hiking the South West Coast Path on the Jurassic Coast in England. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter