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 featured review, reader Kirsten Bukager travels to southern France to see what it’s really like to live and work at a winery. “I taste grapes, while [the owner] watches me intently and asks if I can taste the difference. She teaches me how to use my tastebuds, which are clearly untrained compared to hers. I taste and taste until I feel light-headed. It is embarrassing to admit when I can’t taste the differences, but at the same time it is fascinating to hear Lèia talk, and I am pleased to see her passion.”
Read the rest of Kirsten’s review here: Three days internship as winemaker in Perpignan, France. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!
Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
I remember the days when free wireless Internet in a hotel lobby, let alone your own room, was a luxury. Now, the lack of available Wi-Fi in any corner of a country is a deterrent to visitors who are used to the privilege.
In Germany, for instance, the lack of free and available Wi-Fi to tourists is such a problem it has reached the priority list of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Skift reports. According to the story, “Europe’s largest economy offers just 1.9 wireless hotspots per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 4.8 in the U.S., 29 in the U.K. and 37 in South Korea, according to a study by Eco, a German association representing 800 Internet companies.” These restrictions are due to laws that hold public Internet providers responsible for the illegal activities of customers using their connection. By loosening these restrictions, Germany hopes to not only improve user accessibility, but the economy, through digital initiatives aimed at helping German technology companies compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, according to the story. So do your part by purchasing a stein of beer and Bavarian pretzel; Instagram said beer and pretzel and voila! Instant added marketing.
Nearby, Italy has the same idea, according to Engadget, but its plan is not just to improve Wi-Fi, but to make it free to the public. A recent proposal from lawmakers intends to create thousands of new hotspots over a three-year period, costing $6.3 million. Not only would it improve connection speeds for residents, but the popular tourist destination is hoping that visitors may be more encouraged to connect and share their trip during their time in Italy. See designer merchandise; tweet about your shopping spree — you get the idea.
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Many countries already offer readily available Internet in tourist hot zones such as airports, cafes, museums, you name it. France, recently named the most visited country in the world in 2013 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, offers more than 260 hotspots in Paris alone. Hong Kong is another top destination with its own free, public Wi-Fi service. Last year, CNN reported on Taiwan when it became one of the first countries to not only offer free Wi-Fi on a mass scale to citizens, but also to visitors. The government-backed iTaiwan is now accessible with just a passport as ID at any tourism counter. The same is true in Japan, according to Mashable. Armed with just a passport, travelers can register for free Wi-Fi cards at the airport, for use at roughly 45,000 hotspots in Eastern Japan.
It’s hard to say whether the lack of Wi-Fi would affect my decision to go somewhere — I think I’d go anyway (heck, I just spent a full week in Grenada without any reception at all, so I guess there’s your answer). But looking back at how lost I was merely crossing the border into Canada without cell reception and with no immediate access to Google Maps, TripAdvisor or Yelp to guide my way around Montreal, a little free Wi-Fi certainly goes a long way.
In an era when many are torn between traveling to “get away from it all” and documenting their travels live, or using Internet research to get around, where do you stand? Has Wi-Fi become a necessity, or is it still a luxury?
— written by Brittany Chrusciel
It’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.
If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.
Learn More About the Day of the Dead
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.
Trick or Travel: The World’s Most Haunted Destinations
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
I admit I have a spooky streak: It’s more curious than morbid, but I find myself touring cemeteries (for the history! And architecture!) and waiting for the day when I can finally pay a visit to the Overlook Hotel — inspiration for “The Shining” (I’m a big Kubrick fan). If this sounds like your idea of fun too, and you are looking to plan your next vacation with an excursion into the paranormal (or an actual stay on location), you may want to investigate the following supposedly haunted sites. All locations were found on a list of the most haunted places in the world, from a U.K. website called Haunted Rooms.
Ancient Ram Inn, Gloucestershire, England
The British Isles have their share of folklore, but the story of this ancient inn is no fairy tale. Built in the 12th century, this building is said to occupy a former pagan burial ground and has been the site of child sacrifices and devil worship. Currently serving as a bed and breakfast, guests report being touched and pulled, hearing voices and feeling an evil presence. Its location at the intersection of two ley lines is said to be a conduit for spiritual activity.
13 Best England Experiences
Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa
Supernatural sightings at this 17th-century castle built by the Dutch East India Company include a man repeatedly jumping off a castle wall, and an apparition known as the Lady in Grey who stalked the castle halls crying hysterically. Since a woman’s body was unearthed during a recent excavation, sightings of the Lady have vanished, but ringing bells and the ghost of a black dog are among the curiosities still experienced here.
Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta, Canada
Frighteningly similar to the eerie aura of “The Shining,” this hotel set in the Canadian countryside was built more than 125 years ago and has been the stage for several strange encounters. As in the cult classic film, a family was murdered in one of its rooms, which has been bricked up ever since (but they can still be seen in the hallway). A bride is reported to have fallen down the stairs and broken her neck after her dress caught fire, but a friendlier ghost — a popular bellman from the 60s and 70s — also resides here and still tries to help guests to their rooms, turning on lights and opening doors.
11 Offbeat Things to Do in Canada
Chateau de Brissac, Maine-et-Loire, France
The tallest castle in France is picturesque for sure, but has a dark past. A 15th-century double murder left the home with a specter known as the Green Lady. Story has it that if she looks at you, there are holes where her eyes and nose would be. The current Duke of Brissac and his family reside in the castle to this day and seem unaffected, but guests have reported early-morning moans and sightings of the green ghoul.
A Dozen Things You’ll Find in France
Island of the Dolls, Xochimilco, Mexico
Perhaps the creepiest of all, this lakeside town near Mexico City is not only home to a small and terrifying population of mutilated dolls, but the story behind them is truly chilling. In the 1920s, an accident left a girl drowned. In the 1950s, a recluse named Julian began communicating with the spirit of the young girl and leaving dolls for her on the island. After many years, Julian felt like he could no longer appease her and confessed to his nephew that he felt she would harm him. Later that day he was found face down in the exact location where the girl reportedly drowned. To this day, residents report whisperings from the dolls and wandering eyes.
Lawang Sewu, Semarang, Indonesia
If the name (translation: “thousand doors”) isn’t a bit mysterious as it is, the building was occupied by Japanese forces during WWII and used as a prison, where many were tortured or executed. Believed to be one of the most haunted places in Indonesia, this building (also built by the Dutch East India Company) is said to host multiple ghosts, including a Dutch woman who committed suicide there, headless spirits and a vampiric ghost, or kuntilanak, as it’s known in the region’s folklore.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel
Photo of Ancient Ram Inn used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Synwell.
Photo of Island of the Dolls used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Esparta Palma.
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 …
… see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at sunset?
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.
Photos: 12 Unforgettable France Experiences
Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. (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.
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.
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.
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.
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— written by Sarah Schlichter
The 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.
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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
Today 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?
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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.
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— written by Dori Saltzman
It 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.
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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.
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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.
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— written by Josh Thomas