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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

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot was taken in Strasbourg, France.

strasbourg france


Photos: 12 Unforgettable France Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Paris

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Along with our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

For those of us who love to eat, there are few better spots on Earth to visit than France. (Croissants, crepes, pain au chocolat, brie, quiche … need we say more?) And while Paris may be a natural place to start, I recently found my own foodie bliss in Rennes, the capital of Brittany.

I kicked off my day at France’s second-largest market, the Marche des Lices, which sets up shop every Saturday morning along Place des Lices in the historic center of Rennes. This colorful, multi-block sprawl of stalls is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the tongue, brimming with offerings from more than 300 regional food producers — mangos and melons, avocados and onions, shellfish and soft cheese, cider and salted butter. (The latter are both particular specialties of Brittany.) It feels as though everyone in Rennes shows up with basket in hand, chatting with vendors who reach out with tempting chunks of peaches or olives on toothpicks, hoping to lure a sale. The market is the perfect spot to pick up a few edible souvenirs of your trip to France, such as fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt) or a bottle of the region’s famous cider.

marches des lices rennes tomatoes


It’s practically illegal to leave Brittany without noshing on a crepe. They come in two types: sweet (made of wheat flour and stuffed with goodies like chocolate, fruit or whipped cream) and savory (known as gallettes and made of buckwheat flour). La Creperie Saint-Georges, located at 11 rue du Chapitre, has an extensive menu of both, with each dish named after a famous George — from designer Giorgio Armani to novelist George Sand. For lunch, I opted for the George Clooney, which was stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and tomato, and came with sides of salad and cucumber sorbet. Other options included the popular ham/cheese/egg combo, along with quirkier offerings like smoked salmon with potato and beets. Dessert crepes filled with chocolate and almonds proved impossible to resist.

crepe la creperie saint-georges


That evening, my travel companions and I gathered at Chateau d’Apigne — a 19th-century castle that’s been transformed into an eight-room luxury hotel — for a unique dining experience called “The French Way of Life.” Before sitting down for a multi-course dinner, we learned how to set the table in traditional French style under the guidance of Madame Joelle Ruault, a respected expert in table etiquette who’s shared her wisdom with luminaries at the French presidential palace. We donned white gloves (so we wouldn’t leave unsightly fingerprints on the wine glasses) and laid out tablecloths with folds lined up just so. Plates were placed a finger’s width from the edge of the table, and knife blades were turned inward to avoid expressing aggression toward our neighbors.

chateau d'apigne table


After our settings were declared tres bien and we sat down for our meal, Madame Ruault showed us a series of traditional French serving dishes and utensils — many of them centuries old — and invited us to guess what they were used for. It proved a fun and enlightening game; who knew that the French once had scissors specifically designed to halve grapes? But beyond the novelty, our lesson in French table etiquette offered a fascinating glimpse of the history and culture surrounding the delicious food we’d been enjoying all day in Rennes.

Editor’s Note: The French Way of Life experience can be organized through the Rennes Office of Tourism. The cost begins at 220 euros per group (no minimum or maximum size), plus 50 euros per person for the meal.

For more memorable off-the-beaten-path trip ideas, see our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences.

The Most Delicious Destinations for Foodies
12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

– written by Sarah Schlichter

kiribati beachThe deserted beach. The pristine nature trail. The hushed art gallery. The view of a spectacular landmark unspoiled by crowds. It’s something many travelers dream of having: a magnificent travel experience all to oneself.

Considering that more than one billion tourists traveled internationally last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), it’s a lot more likely that you’ll find yourself standing in long lines, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the beach and jostling fellow travelers at overcrowded museums — unless you travel to one of these 25 countries.

Gunnar Garfors, globetrotter and CEO of Norwegian Mobile TV Co., used UNWTO data to compile a list of the 25 least visited countries in the world. While the most popular destination for tourism, France, sees some 79.5 million visitors a year, the countries on Garfors’ list see numbers in the thousands, or even hundreds. Taking home the honors as the least traveled spot is the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which was visited by a measly 200 people in 2011.

Sweet Spots to Stay in Paris

Like Nauru, many of the countries on the list are there because they’re small and difficult to get to (Tuvalu, Kiribati). Others have faced recent violence and are generally considered unsafe for tourists (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone). Still others aren’t so much difficult to get to as difficult to get into (Bhutan and North Korea, where visas are required and travelers must arrange for a guide rather than touring independently). Yet Garfors has visited 21 of the 25, and returned with fascinating tips and stories to share.

Personally, I’m only one for 25. I’ve been to No. 25, Dominica, the sleepy Caribbean island that’s better known for its lush rain forest trails and waterfalls than for its beaches. It was worth the trip — my partner and I took several hikes without seeing another soul. As for the other 24 countries … well, I’d better get traveling.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

How many of the least visited countries have you been to?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

paris catacombs skullsToday is Valentine’s Day, and travel sites will be filling your inbox with lists of romantic hotels and destinations. All will feature wonderful things for couples to do together, and dreamy suites with large bathtubs — including some shaped like hearts and filled with Champagne and chocolates.

But isn’t all of that a little … cliche? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an e-mail for Valentine’s Day recommending that you and your loved one visit the Parisian catacombs or tour a historic prison? We think so. We’ve put together a list of four destinations to visit that wouldn’t normally be associated with Valentine’s Day.

Feel free to add your own to the list!

The Parisian Catacombs: A romantic hangout for the “Twilight”-loving crowd it might be, but for most of us the 18th-century catacombs located beneath the streets of Paris are a bit creepy. Still, what better place to be if you want an excuse to cuddle really close to your loved one?

Best Places to Stay in Paris

Alcatraz: Also referred to as “The Rock” (hmm, that seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, actually), Alcatraz is a small island in San Francisco that housed an infamous federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Couples looking for an illicit thrill can give each other a peck on the lips in the (reportedly haunted) cell in which Al Capone once lived.

Verona, Italy: Actually not an unromantic destination at all, Verona is a city located in northeast Italy with an artistic heritage and Roman ruins. Alas, Verona also is known as the place Romeo and Juliet met their doomed end.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania: A rather appropriately named town for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? This quaint tourist town in Amish Country was used during the filming of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” Visitors can check out the local crafts, take a buggy ride or visit the Quilt Museum.

12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit

– written by Dori Saltzman

seaweed brittany franceIt was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!

The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.

Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.

Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.

Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.

One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip

Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.

The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo

Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.

Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels

– written by Josh Thomas

paris fashion sunglasses eiffel towerWhat exactly are “rude” countries and “rude” cities?

I’ll tell you what they are: Places that travel Web sites and publications routinely turn to in order to get people talking (and, uh, clearly it works).

A few weeks ago, Skyscanner — a Web site that compares rates on different airlines — announced that its users had deemed France the world’s rudest country, with Russia taking the second spot. (The United States was No. 6.) By default, that apparently makes Paris the world’s rudest city. And in January, Travel + Leisure magazine announced its readers’ picks for America’s rudest cities, with New York taking the top “prize.” Slots two through through five went to Miami, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Boston.

I’ve been to all of these cities, and I’ll be darned if I can tell which one is ruder than the other. I’ve seen heroic acts of kindness in the Big Apple, and while you can’t take the French out of the French, I’ve never felt particularly ill at ease while tromping near the Arc de Triomphe. Washington D.C.? Having lived there for nearly two decades, I always considered the place ridiculously pleasant.

Rudeness is most definitely in the eyes of the beholder, and no doubt travelers have a different take on things than those who live in these bastions of ill manners. I had a former boss who insisted that the only way to avoid rudeness in places like Paris, New York and London (Skyscanner deems the British the third-rudest nationality) was to blend in with the locals, and I always thought was a terrible idea. Why? Because the natives can sniff out posers immediately, and they’ll turn on you.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

Instead, I’ve found that being polite myself begets politeness in others. Dressing appropriately (sorry, no flip-flops in Notre Dame) and adhering to local customs goes a long way toward endearing you to the locals. Learning a bit of the native language puts others at ease and shows that you’re at least trying. And by all means, if you bumble into New York thinking that everyone is going to be rude to you … you’ll probably leave thinking they were.



– written by John Deiner

arc de triomphe paris traffic nightI think Jacques the taxi driver knew what my problem was. What my problem still is, really. I’m a big coward. Adventures are fun — I like them — but in the beginning of a trip I just want to get where I’m going, have something to eat, perhaps have a shower. After that, exploring is fine.

Jacques knew this because we’d chosen to get into his taxi instead of using the Metro like the other one billion people in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. That would have cost us about seven euros, taken 20 minutes and been way too easy.

Jacques knew that the only reason we got into his taxi was that we thought it was going to be easier.

Our Favorite Paris Hotels

His was the first taxi in line outside the airport. He looked just like Lou Reed, so we decided that we could probably trust him. He leaped out from behind the wheel and helped us with our bags.

After driving for about 10 minutes, joining a busy flyover of traffic, it occurred to me to tell him where we were actually going. “Sure!” he said, winding down his window to indicate with his hand. “We’ll go there now.”

We got to talking. This was a good thing.

“All this on the left,” he said, pointing out of the window, “is the old town. This motorway is like a big wall. Everything inside it is old Paris, historical Paris, and everything outside it is new. Most of the people live outside the motorway. That’s how it is.”

He pointed out of the other side of the car at a formation of shiny skyscrapers. They looked as if they were in need of a clean. “See those?” he said. “The rock climber Alain Robert climbed up those in the 90’s. He did it with his bare hands and no ropes or anything.”

I looked at the buildings. They were outside the motorway.

“And when he finished,” the taxi driver grumbled, “they took him down off the roof and drove him straight to court.” He shook his head.

Paris Travel Guide

Farther into town, Jacques (as we’d learned was his name) decided to drive around the Arc de Triomphe five times to show us how easily he could do it. “I don’t understand why people are so afraid!” he shouted over his shoulder as the tires squealed and the meter clicked up a couple of digits.

We passed a swish-looking hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It had balconies and footmen and little potted plants. Jacques took a moment to tell us that this was where the President of France had spent his first night after being elected.

“With,” he growled accusingly, turning around in his seat to look at us, “a woman that was not his wife…”

After unnecessarily prolonging our route even further so that he could shout at the Eiffel Tower — “Go on! Try it! It’s good luck! In Paris, we call her the fat lady!” — we arrived at our hotel. The fare was enormous — the price of a nice meal for two.

“That’s what it is,” Jacques shrugged when I expressed my surprise. He looked even more like Lou Reed than he had at the airport.

Have you ever argued with a Lou Reed look-alike taxi driver over a colossal fare obviously inflated by a ridiculously lengthened route that included backtracking, deviations, extra tangents and oddly recurring streets, not to mention five times round the Arc de Triomphe?

Neither have I. Jacques had me down from the start. I am a coward.

It was a great way to see the city, no doubt. I actually enjoyed it far more than I would have enjoyed the Metro. But, I realized after shelling out nearly all of the notes in my wallet, it was definitely one of the more expensive guided tours I’ve ever been on.

Have you ever been taken for a ride while traveling?

– written by Josh Thomas

I may get pelted with geraniums for admitting this, but here goes: Claude Monet’s ultra-famous gardens in Giverny, while objectively artful, left me cold. It’s like the painter left his vision behind but took the soul of it with him to the grave. They’re just too … perfect.

I visited Giverny as a port of call on a recent Seine River cruise. It was clear that the Impressionist’s two gardens, which he created so he could paint his visions of paradise, are unspeakably lush and immaculately tended (the place has a team of full-time gardeners). And yes, as you amble through his water garden, wander over the iconic Japanese bridge and peer into the pond to see if the water lilies are flowering yet, you can almost imagine yourself in one of his paintings.

Almost.

monet giverny garden


To me, though, there was something sterile about the place, despite the perfectly tended pathways and the thousands of visitors with whom I shared my wanderings, and in spite of the whizzing sound of cars passing by (one thing the glamorous photos don’t show you is that a two-lane highway separates the garden by the house from the water garden). The fluorescently illuminated gift shop, as big as a barn, was full of cheap crap-knacks, such as “Lady with a Parasol”-on-magnet or “Water-Lily Pond”-on-polyester-scarf, that are meant to appeal to the masses. Indeed, Monet’s garden, as a daytripper’s jaunt from Paris, draws a half million visitors per year.

If you’re in the area, the pilgrimage to Monet’s place is obligatory, but keep it short. A better way to spend a day in Giverny is to wander into the heart of its village. Grab a stool in the bar at the ancient Hotel Baudy, where the artists who followed Monet to Giverny bartered paintings for food (their work still hangs there). Check out the artists’ studio in the back garden that’s been preserved as it was a century ago. And feel free to wander through the garden that for Baudy’s owner is as much a labor of love as was Monet’s. It’s got lavender and geraniums, benches you can sit on, and forested alcoves for private musing. It may not have that pond full of water lilies. But it’s got soul in spades.

hotel baudy artists studio


Slideshow: Top 10 Undiscovered Destinations

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

parisLast weekend, a hankering for popcorn and the urge to escape 90-degree temperatures drew me to the movie theater. Previews flashed, the protagonist triumphed, credits rolled and suddenly I found myself planning a trip to Paris.

The movie was “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy. It’s a love story about an American traveler and his devotion to Paris — more specifically, Paris in the rain … during the 1920’s. Aside from the fantastical time traveling bits of the movie, most of “Midnight in Paris” could pass for a film sponsored by the French tourism board. Allen highlights the city with heaps of gorgeous Parisian imagery: miles of sidewalk cafes, street vendors selling relics of the past, impossibly thin women in elegant clothes, the Eiffel Tower glittering in the night. Even Carla Bruni makes an appearance.

I haven’t been to Paris. It was on my places-to-see-in-the-next-decade list, somewhere behind Yosemite National Park and Mongolia. But now? Paris has edged past Mongolia, and soon I’ll be drawing disapproving stares with my lapsed college French and biting into baguettes alongside Carla Bruni.

I can think of a few other movies that tend to have a transformative effect on the hearts and travel plans of audiences. Here are some of my favorites:

“Lost in Translation”
Romance grows from a shared case of culture shock in Sofia Coppola’s Japanese gem. Tokyo, the star of this film, comes across as a mysterious, moody, otherworldly destination, and the movie is rich with beautiful footage of the city.

“Under the Tuscan Sun”
Long before Julia Roberts patched an on-screen split with a trio of trips in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Diane Lane played a divorcee who took a two-week tour of Tuscany and, on a whim, decided to drop everything and move to the Boot. Sure, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is an unabashed feel-good “chick flick” (if that term makes you cringe, I’m with you), but the shots of dazzling Tuscan landscapes and charming but crumbling Italian villas make this movie worth the two hours.

“Roman Holiday”
The movie that kicked off Audrey Hepburn’s dynamo career is, in my opinion, the quintessential traveler’s flick. In “Roman Holiday,” Hepburn plays Princess Anne, who breaks from the royal life on tour of Rome and stumbles into an unexpected romance. Although the movie came out in 1953, a traveler in Rome today will find that few of the ancient sites featured in film have changed since “Roman Holiday” was in theaters.

“Solaris”
In all seriousness, if that crazy planet were real, I’d want to travel there (but on a less creepy space station). Fun fact: The futuristic earth city featured in the movie is actually Tokyo.

What are your favorite travel movies? Share your picks in the comments.

– written by Caroline Costello