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rugelachWe had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.

When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.

We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.

We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.

It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.

Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels

The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.

The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970’s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.

The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.

I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.

It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.

There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.

The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Josh Thomas

stonerito elizabeths new orleansNew Orleans. Bourbon Street. The two pretty much go hand in hand even outside of Mardi Gras season. However, despite a single walk-through for the “experience” during my recent first trip to NOLA, I found the dodgy vibe wasn’t for me.

Thankfully, a few local friends gave me every traveler’s sought-after inside scoop. They took me to a few touristy spots like Cafe du Monde, which my taste buds found to be worth its salt (well, sugar) — but they knew to visit in the wee hours (early morning or late night) in order to avoid the lines. My idea of drinking in the street was fulfilled by ordering their cafe au lait in a keepsake mug and taking the rest to go. If you too prefer the slightly offbeat, consider the following haunts I was introduced to, by the people who live there.

Bywater: As Local as It Gets
If you lived here, you’d be home by now. At least that’s the wisdom of the hand-painted wooden sign that greets you along the waterway into this charming Crescent City neighborhood, one of very few in the Ninth Ward affected little by Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Bob, a local folk artist known for his signs including “Be Nice or Leave” (a favorite displayed in many local bars and establishments), has set up his art gallery and studio headquarters along Chartres in Bywater, and the location is hard to miss. Serving as the neighborhood’s unofficial mascot, the colorful yet gritty aesthetic of Dr. Bob’s art is indicative of the entire area.

As I wandered from brunch spot to brunch spot (brunch is a way of life in New Orleans), I became acquainted with the rainbow of houses and eclectic storefronts featuring vintage, antique and found objects. For every one I would pass or step into, there were two more I didn’t have time to discover. I suggest taking a day, or at least a whole afternoon, to wander this area and see what you discover for yourself.

For foodies, I recommend eating at Elizabeth’s. Its motto is “Real food, done real good,” and after eating there, I would overwhelmingly agree. This local establishment boasts no frills with plastic, cherry-dappled tablecloths and painted signs promoting their praline bacon (yes, you read that correctly … and that’s just an appetizer!). I went with the daily special — a stonerito — composed of eggs, sausage and bacon (yes, more bacon) in a French toast-battered wrap doused with powdered sugar, plus a side of fried green tomatoes with remoulade.

Our 5 Favorite New Orleans Hotels

Frenchmen Street
Known by residents as the “locals’ Bourbon Street,” Frenchmen offers shopping, bars, restaurants, music and culture — without the beads and rows of daiquiri machines. If you get to talking with any local shop owners, at some point they’ll ask you if you “know about Frenchmen.” A relative secret to most tourists, some of the best jazz venues run along this rue, from the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor to Maison and Apple Barrel; they’re even happening on a Monday night. Sip your hurricane from a cup, not a plastic monstrosity, and immerse yourself in the music. For late-night, post-drink snacking, I suggest getting the tachos (nachos made with tater tots) at 13, a restaurant/bar.

Antiquing and Supermarkets
A bit daunted by the high-end Shops at Canal Place, unimpressed with River Walk and fizzled out after the same booths row after row in the French Market, I found that my favorite places to shop in New Orleans were the ever-present antique emporiums, artists’ collectives and the local supermarket. Rare Finds, near the market in the French Quarter, had a distinctive selection of antiques and memorabilia from absinthe spoons to vintage coins that served as old call girl coupons. I found a beautifully aged fleur de lis hook from the 1960’s for around $20.

On Royal Street there’s plenty of art at a variety of price points, mostly by local artists. For a glass of wine, a chat and a look around, try the Great Artists’ Collective. Finally, for those souvenirs to bring home to the family, from sauces, spices and snacks to beads and masks, try a suburban supermarket such as Rouse’s. Though food specialties and decorations change seasonally, it’s a definite bet for reasonably priced condiments and local seasonings if you have a foodie at home. Pick up some groceries for yourself too, like a case of seasonal Abita beer or a bag of Voodoo chips to enjoy back at the hotel.

See Our Complete New Orleans Travel Guide

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airplane child drink trayPillows, headphones, meals, checked bags … these are just a few things that travelers used to get for free but currently have to pay for on most flights. And now there’s someone out there arguing that airlines should eliminate the free beverage and snack service as well.

John Nicholson at the Huffington Post writes, “Stop forcing that default complimentary soda and snack on your economy passengers on domestic flights. Most of us don’t want it, all of us can do without it and we all know you can’t really afford it.” He goes on to argue that we can easily live without a soda or a mini-bag of pretzels for a couple of hours on the ground, so why do we need them in the air? If we actually do want some refreshment, he says, we should be able to buy it at a reasonable price, rather than paying the airlines’ current inflated prices for anything more substantial than a handful of potato chips.

While I see his point, I’m not quite convinced. First off, does anyone really think the airlines would suddenly give us reasonably priced food options if they eliminated complimentary snacks? Call me crazy, but I think they’d just pocket the profit.

Why Airline Food Stinks: A Scientific Explanation

And yes, most of us can live a few hours without eating, but in the ultra-arid environment of a plane, it’s nice to have that extra drink to help us stay hydrated, even on shorter flights. If you must take my snack away, at least let me still have some water for free!

Finally, well, let’s face it: flying is boring. Having the drink/snack service to look forward to is one thing that gets me through the hours. Especially since the airlines have taken just about everything else away.

5 Foods to Avoid Before Flying

Do you think the airlines should eliminate the complimentary soda and snack? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

nassau bahamas jamaican food jerk chickenNod your head if you think there’s nothing more to Nassau than its proximity to the Atlantis Resort and Casino and a plethora of straw markets and high-end shops. I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding their head right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And because of that, Nassau was fairly low on my list of must-visit destinations.

But on a recent cruise visit to this port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.

I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.

I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700’s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War, and were a hotbed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.

Nassau Hotels

And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch (pronounced conk) isn’t just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, it’s often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.

All of these facts and more were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian Food Tours launched just two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on the three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

The tour was the high point of my seven-day Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a country and port that is too often dismissed for its three S’s (sun, sand and shopping).

Among the culinary highlights of the tour were:

Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.

Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there are usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.

An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. Okay, so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4 – 5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.

Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family that owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But for this chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple, and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.

Greek salad. The Greek salad itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street), and that the son’s owner is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.

How to Save Money on Food When You Travel


– written by Dori Saltzman

japan airlines kfc kentucky fried chickenForget sushi — on your next Japan Airlines flight, you could enjoy a homegrown American favorite: KFC (once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). The airline recently announced that for the next three months, meal service on select U.S. and Europe flights will feature a two-piece chicken meal from KFC, including a drumstick, a chicken breast fillet, coleslaw, flat bread and lettuce leaves (which you can use to make a chicken sandwich).

KFC will be available during the second meal service on premium economy and economy flights from Tokyo’s Narita airport to New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, London, Paris and Frankfurt, through February 28, 2013. According to the airline’s press release, “KFC is widely popular in Japan particularly during the Christmas season.”

Personally, I’d rather have sushi. But I guess KFC is as delicious and exotic to the Japanese as sushi is to us Yanks!

Why Airline Food Stinks: A Scientific Explanation

Do you like the idea of a fast food chain serving up airline meals, or do you get enough fast food in the airport? Vote in our poll and leave your comments below.

5 Foods to Avoid Before Flying

– written by Sarah Schlichter

beerI’m a teetotaler. My husband is a beer aficionado. This makes for some interesting travel planning. He’d be content to tour every brewery and stop in every pub. Me, not so much. But I love that he loves to experience different beers when traveling, so I try to find beer-related places we can both visit and enjoy wherever we can go.

The best beer experience we’ve had so far – and I’m pretty sure I speak for both of us on this one – was a tour of the Guinness Brewery in Ireland. Some of the highlights included the museum of Guinness advertisements throughout the years, and a learn-to-pour-the-perfect-pint instructional session.

I’ve recently been told that the brewery tour experiences at Heineken in Amsterdam and Sam Adams in Boston also are a lot of fun, so I’m putting them on our list of possible vacation destinations.

Here are three other beer experiences I’d be up for if ever the chance arises.

Beer Bathing
Apparently, the very same hops that are used for making beer also are good for one’s skin, at least according to some dozen spas in Germany and the Czech Republic that tout the rejuvenating and anti-toxin benefits of beer bathing. Since it takes very little arm-twisting to get me to a spa, I’m thinking an overnight visit to, say the Chodovar Brewery in the Czech Republic could be a great vacation stop for the both of us. There we could soak in a water and beer bath for two, and afterward he can have a drink while I get a massage.

How to Save Money on Food When You Travel

Beer Trails
While neither my husband nor I are regular hikers, we both enjoy the occasional hike when traveling. I’d venture a guess that one of my husband’s favorite parts of the hike is the cold beer when it’s over, so being able to stop at different points along a hike to enjoy a frosty brew would probably be heaven for him. And I wouldn’t mind stopping every so often to relax and take in the scenery, especially if that scenery consists of castles. That’s why the 13-kilometer beer trail in Franconian Switzerland in Germany would be the ideal place for us. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this area, made up of the city triangle of Bamberg, Bayreuth and Nuremberg, has the highest density of small breweries in the world. Since the trail can stretched out over the course of a couple of days, we could easily – and happily – combine hikes with beer breaks and castle visits.

Beer Festivals
I’m not sure if I’d ever want to venture to Germany during Oktoberfest, but I certainly don’t mind giving smaller beer festivals a go. In fact, I enjoy choosing beers that have funny names or weird sounding ingredients and asking my husband to try them. We’ve been to a few local beer festivals as well as one in Brasov, Romania (where we used to live), so I’m definitely up for the idea of incorporating a beer festival into our travel plans. One that might be interesting to visit would be the San Diego International Beer Festival, which takes place at the end of June and claims to offer a greater variety of beer than any U.S. festival west of Denver. Another one I’d love to attend is the Nottingham Robin Hood Beer Festival in England held in mid-October.

– written by Dori Saltzman

moroccan couscous chicken dishEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

For every unique and tasteful souvenir, there’s a raft of cheap “I ♥ New York” mugs, useless bobblehead figures and oh-so-classy boxer shorts imprinted with the X-rated bits of Michelangelo’s David statue. Your trip deserves better.

I’ve found my own way to memorialize my travels, and it doesn’t start till I get home. As I wrote in 35 Travel Tips Revealed: Top Secrets of Travel Writers, “I like to bring a little bit of each trip home with me — and not just with postcards. After I return from a foreign country, I always try to recreate a local dish in my own kitchen, like Moroccan couscous or Belizean stewed chicken. The smell of the meal will often transport me right back to the place I just left.”

Be warned: It sometimes takes a little experimenting and Web searching to find a recipe that truly lives up to the flavors and scents you remember. Learning to cook in a new style can be a challenge too (I set my wok on fire one of the first few times I tried to season it). And don’t be surprised if you have to venture out to a specialty grocer for that hard-to-find banana flower, yuca root or Sichuan pepper.

But for me, the hassle is all worth it when the scent of toasting cumin calls up vivid sense memories of those colorful Moroccan spice markets I loved to visit. It’s the next best thing to being there.

What’s your favorite memento of your travels?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

produce grocery store fruit colorful europe supermarketEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

As a student backpacking across Europe, I lived on convenience store sandwiches, fruit, nuts and baguettes. (Oh, and gelato. Lots of gelato.) Fancy sit-down restaurants were for older, wealthier travelers; I rarely paid more than five bucks for a meal.

Nearly a decade later, my travel partner and I often find ourselves blowing $100 a day on restaurant meals during a trip. We’re gainfully employed and a little more grown up than that cash-strapped college kid I used to be, but I’m still a budget-conscious traveler. Surely I can enjoy great food without the painful price tag?

Writes Caroline Costello, “Especially in European destinations, where many decent restaurants are expensive and authentic local food can be purchased at affordable prices, getting your food from a local grocer is a great idea. Grab a fresh baguette and some cheese in Paris, bring them to the Tuileries Garden for an outdoor lunch, and you’ve got an authentic yet affordable Parisian meal with one of the best views in town.”

Picnics aside, grocery stores are also a great place to stock up on everyday needs such as water (I like to pick up a gallon jug and refill my smaller bottles each morning) and snacks. If your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, skip the $14 waffles and pick up some fresh bread and fruit at the local grocer’s; it’ll only cost you a couple of bucks.

See more ways to save on your next trip in Backpackers’ Secrets: Top Tips for Cheap Travel.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,'” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

beer festival



2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

bahia honda state park florida keys



3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

alaska inside passage boat sunset



4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

gettysburg battlefield cannon civil war



5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

san francisco giants baseball ballpark



Get more summer vacation ideas!

– written by Dan Askin

eating alone I hate eating alone while traveling. If I have to do it, I seek out dark corner tables and I make sure I’m armed with a book or a laptop in which to bury my face.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to like dining alone, beaming confidently at the empty chair across from me while enjoying my food in peaceful silence. But a bad incident at Senor Frog’s in Myrtle Beach changed everything.

I know. Senor Frog’s, the hard-partying place that serves JELL-O shots and fish tacos to tank top-clad tourists in beachy destinations, isn’t exactly Shangri-La for the solo diner. Nevertheless, I was at Broadway at the Beach at the time (a vast Myrtle Beach shopping and entertainment complex), and my options included a Hard Rock Cafe shaped like an enormous Egyptian pyramid and various steakhouses and seafood spots. I’m a vegetarian. And it looked like the 70-foot-tall Hard Rock pyramid might swallow up a lonely unaccompanied traveler. So I took my chances with the frog.

In the same way that T.G.I. Friday’s displays vintage memorabilia and relics of Americana, Senor Frog’s posts smart-mouthed signs declaring “Save water. Drink tequila!” or “We don’t speak English, but we promise not to laugh at your Spanish!”

Sometimes, I noticed, Senor Frog’s staff placed signs next to patrons. As I waited for my nachos to make an appearance, I watched a waiter set up a sign next to a gaggle of giggling teens. It read “Supermodels at play!” with an arrow directing diners’ eyes to the girls.

“How sweet,” I thought. “But you better not put one of those things near me. You. Better. Not.” I sank my face into my novel and tried to blend in with the booth.

A server soon arrived and, with his left hand, slid a plate of cheesy nachos under my chin. In his right hand, he gripped a tall wooden sign, which he positioned next to my booth. “Needs a date,” it read. A fat arrow pointed mockingly to my head.

This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve always secretly feared when dining alone. Sharing a meal with a ghost in a restaurant stuffed with chatty quads and pairs, I’ve envisioned people whispering about me, wondering what happened to my date or whether I was some kind of socially marred loner. In reality, few people care about or even notice solo diners. Of course, there’s usually not a brazen sign broadcasting one’s lack of date.

“Take it away!” I hissed to the waiter. “No sign! Take it away!” The thing went down like a slap, but the damage was done. Thoroughly embarrassed, I choked down one or two triangle chips, signed the check and exited quickly.

Should I have laughed at the sign and taken myself a bit less seriously? Perhaps. But I was pretty embarrassed, and ever since that meal at Senor Frog’s, I’ve dreaded the table for one. How do you feel about dining alone?

— written by Caroline Costello