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Snow may be lingering in the forecast, but spring is fighting its way into the air. Soon there will be something to show for it, when plants begin to bloom from every nook in the seasonally halcyon days of histamine.

Among the fragrant indicators of warmer weather, none is as iconic as the cherry blossom tree. A Japanese tradition, cherry blossom or sakura festivals take place each spring when the trees reach peak bloom (typically in early April). This became a U.S. tradition over a century ago, when Japan gifted us with more than 2,000 trees as a symbol of friendship and good will in 1912, and 3,800 more in 1965. Since then, cherry blossom tourists have primarily flocked to our nation’s capital, where these trees flaunt their annual pinks and whites.

While Washington D.C.‘s National Cherry Blossom Festival is a gorgeous spring display and celebration of international relations, it’s not the only festival of its kind. In fact, it’s not even the largest in the country. Check out these four alternative cherry blossom festivals living in its shadow; you may be surprised by their locations.

branch brook newark new jersey cherry blossom essex county


Branch Brook Park: Newark, NJ
With more than 4,300 trees to its name, Branch Brook Park — in the unlikely city of Newark, New Jersey — is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossoms. It’s the Garden State, after all! Each April, more than 10,000 people gather in the Essex County park for its spring festival of events including a 10K run, a bike race and Bloomfest, which hosts Japanese cultural demonstrations, food, music, a crafter’s marketplace and plenty of children’s activities. The grounds are sprawling, so it’s the perfect setting for a picnic — or hanami — under the pink awning of the trees. This year’s events kick off on April 5 and culminate with Bloomfest on April 13.

Macon Georgia cherry blossom festival carriage children


International Cherry Blossom Festival: Macon, GA
The self-proclaimed cherry blossom capital of the world, Macon, Georgia, is host to a number of year-round events celebrating the cherry blossom, in addition to its annual international festival and parade. With a whopping 300,000 – 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees around Macon, it’s no wonder the town revels in all things cherry tree — they can’t escape them! Riding tours like the Cherry Blossom Express offer relaxing tree-peeping trips as you visit the most unique places around Macon. For a bit more excitement, check out the Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale, which caps off the festival’s celebrations. There are a number of events scheduled this year, but the parade takes place on March 23 and the season concludes with the fireworks finale on April 5.

Photo used and shared under the following license: GNU Free Documentation License. Original photo copyright Wikimedia Commons user Macondude.

shinto shrine pond brooklyn botanical cherry blossom


Sakura Park/Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: New York City, NY
Many people recognize Washington D.C. as the home to Japan’s generous gift of cherry blossom trees, but not as recognized are the 2,000 trees from the same gift living in a small park in Manhattan. Sakura Park isn’t host to any huge parades or festivals, but blooms quietly each spring along the northern tip of Morningside Heights. Close to Grant’s Tomb, it’s in a peaceful and historic section of the city, making it the perfect escape for urbanites on a springtime afternoon.

Nearby, a tree grows in Brooklyn — well, make that multiple trees. The cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden includes a Shinto shrine and pond. Sakura Matsuri is the BBG’s annual cherry blossom festival that offers more than 60 events and performances celebrating both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The festival is typically in late spring, as it marks the end of the cherry blossom season. This year’s events take place April 26 and 27.

geese schuylkill river cherry blossom philadelphia


Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA
Encouraging you to “visit Japan without leaving Philly,” the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia is host to the area’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, a collection of Japanese music, art, food and culture, right in the City of Brotherly Love. Events and demonstrations span martial arts, flower arranging and even a sushi competition. With cherry blossoms as the backdrop, immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a Dine Out Japan restaurant week and taiko drum performances. All the festivities lead up to Sakura Sunday, held at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. This year’s events begin on April 2 and conclude on April 13.

For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Today is National Lighthouse Day and in honor of these lifesaving and oftentimes scenic attractions, we’ve combed through our IndependentTraveler.com boards to find out which lighthouses our readers have been most impressed with.

In no particular order here are five lighthouses you may never have heard of, but our readers recommend you visit.

lighthouse Point Reyes Lighthouse, San Francisco Bay area
The light house on Point Reyes has been a lifesaver for mariners trying to some of the windiest and foggiest waters on their way into the San Francisco Bay since 1870. Now retired from service, the lighthouse is a museum in which the era of the lightkeeper is preserved.



lighthouse Tybee Island Light Station, Georgia
Though the current building only dates back to 1916, the original lighthouse was built in 1732. Sitting on a five-acre piece of land the light station guides ships into the Savannah River. Visitors can go inside and climb the 178 stops to the top for stunning views.




lighthouse Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, Bermuda
Not only is Gibbs Hill Lighthouse the tallest lighthouse on Bermuda, the hill on which its located is one of the highest points as well. So whether you brave the 185 steps to the top or not, you’ll still get a wonderful vista of the island on your visit there.



lighthouse Celarain Lighthouse, Cozumel
Located in the Punta Sur Park, a 247-acre ecological park, the lighthouse is part of a nautical museum that can be visited via park-run tours. Inside the structure you can climb some 130 steps to the observation deck.





lighthouse Blockhouse Point Lighthouse, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
While you can’t actually go inside this lighthouse, built in 1851, its location offers a wonderful view of the harbor. But if you peek in the ground floor windows you should be able to see parts of the kitchen, parlor and two bedrooms.





Eight Unique Ways to Experience Fall

– written by Dori Saltzman

Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of today’s 49th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we’re exploring five places you can visit where the man himself once slept, walked, spoke, protested and generally inspired a nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site (Georgia)
This historic national landmark is actually a conglomerate of several sites in Atlanta, Georgia, that include Dr. King’s boyhood home on Auburn Avenue as well as Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both he and his father were pastors. Don’t miss the visitor center’s museum that chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement. Another interesting must-see is Fire Station No. 6, which houses an exhibit on desegregation within the Atlanta Fire Department.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (Alabama)
A historic building in and of itself – having been founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen – this small Baptist church was forever entered into the annals of history by its 20th pastor, Dr. King, who served from 1954 to 1960. Most famously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950′s was directed by Dr. King from his church office. In 1980, a beautiful mural was painted outside the church depicting scenes from Dr. King’s journey from Montgomery to Memphis. Tours of the church can be privately arranged.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (Alabama)
This 54-mile trail commemorates the route of the 1965 Voting Rights March beginning at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma. It includes the Edmond Pettus Bridge where on March 7, 1965 marchers were tear-gassed and beaten by police offers. The march, led by Dr. King, began again a few weeks later with protesters joining from around the country. The five-day trek ended at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with several notable speeches, including one by Dr. King. The entire route is a component of the National Trails System and is administered by the National Park Service. Several interpretive centers are placed along the trail.

Slideshow: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Alabama)
A large museum and research center, the Civil Rights Institute is located in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is home to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Dr. King was a frequent speaker at the church, which was also the site of the horrific fire bombing that killed four young girls. The Institute’s permanent exhibit is a self-directed walk through Birmingham’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

National Civil Rights Museum (Tennessee)
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, the National Civil Rights Museum is a complex of museums built around the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. In addition to a museum tracing the Civil Rights Movement, visitors can see the site where James Earl Ray first confessed to the shooting, as well as the rooming house where the murder weapon was found.

Bonus Site: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (Washington D.C.)
While Dr. King may never have visited the actual site of the memorial created in his honor, Washington D.C. is where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 in front of some 250,000 listeners. The official address of the monument, 1964 Independence Avenue S.W., commemorates the year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

Visit the Southeast Message Board

– written by Dori Saltzman

shellmont innWe have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel contest is $260. Cornelia’s answer was spot-on — and she won a free IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt!

The room pictured in Friday’s post is the Veranda Suite at the Shellmont Inn, a historic B&B located in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood. The surprisingly affordable digs cost between $225 and $260 per night, and feature two queen beds, a flat-screen TV, an oak writing desk, and a bathroom with a jetted tub and a separate glass shower. Rates include a hot breakfast with Belgian waffles, sausage or bacon and fresh fruit. Not bad for $260 per night! Read more about the Shellmont Inn in Atlanta Essentials.

Check back on Friday for another shot at winning a prize!

– written by Caroline Costello

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Atlanta! Pictured is the Fountain of Rings at Centennial Olympic Park, which was designed as a central gathering place for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The tall cylindrical building in the background is the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, whose 6,300+ windows had to be replaced after a tornado hurtled through Atlanta in March 2008. To read more about the city, check out Atlanta Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Food, wine, parades, live music and finally getting outdoors after a long winter … what’s not to love about the spring festival season? If you’re seeking inspiration for a last-minute spring trip, don’t miss the festivities going on around the U.S. in celebration of everything from strawberries to Cinco de Mayo. Read on for info on our five favorite upcoming spring festivals.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: New Orleans, LA
Despite its name, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival showcases much more than just jazz music; headliners this year include Jimmy Buffett, Robert Plant & the Band of Joy, Cyndi Lauper, Wilco, Wyclef Jean and dozens of other artists in every musical genre you can imagine. In addition to live concerts every day, the festival — which runs for 10 days from April 29 through May 8 — also offers a Louisiana Folklife Village and a Native American Village where visitors can watch crafts demonstrations and enjoy traditional local music. And don’t forget the food! This is your chance to sample N’awlins favorites like muffuletta, red beans and rice, po’boys, and crawfish pie.

big sams funky nation new orleans jazz festival 2010



California Strawberry Festival: Oxnard, CA
Whether you like ‘em baked into a shortcake, dipped in chocolate, slathered with whipped cream or even tossed on top of a pizza, strawberries are the center of the action at Oxnard, California’s annual Strawberry Festival on May 21 and 22. Check out the Strawberry Promenade to watch cooking demonstrations and take in an informative exhibit on the “Life of a Strawberry.” Live music, a kids’ area, and locally made arts and crafts round out the offerings.

california strawberry festival oxnard ca



Cinco in the Park: Denver, CO
Denver celebrates Mexican culture and heritage with its annual Cinco in the Park festival, scheduled this year for May 7 and 8. The holiday of Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle in which the Mexican town of Puebla overcame the French back in 1862; in modern-day Denver, the fiesta includes music, dancing, a parade and a Green Chili Bowl Cook-Off, in which local restaurants duke it out over who has the best spicy recipe.

cinco de mayo dancers denver



Nantucket Daffodil Festival: Nantucket, MA
After a long and snowy winter, the island of Nantucket celebrates the spring thaw each year with its colorful Nantucket Daffodil Festival. This year’s festivities, which run from April 29 through May 1, will feature annual events such as the antique car parade (the vehicles are, of course, bedecked with daffodil blooms), the daffy hat pageant (how many flowers can you fit onto your baseball cap?) and the daffy dog parade (a daffodil-decorated Fido might lack a little dignity, but he’ll sure look pretty).

nantucket daffodil festival daffy hat



Vidalia Onion Festival: Vidalia, GA
Did you know that the Vidalia sweet onion is Georgia’s official state vegetable? Help celebrate all things onion at the 34th annual Vidalia Onion Festival, which runs from April 28 through May 1. The town goes all out for the festivities, which include an air show, a concert (with “American Idol” alum Kellie Pickler as the headliner), a Miss Vidalia Onion pageant, a rodeo, a motorcycle rally and, of course, plenty of opportunities to sample those yummy onions! Try the sweet onion rings, available downtown all day during the festival, or attend the Vidalia Onion Culinary Extravaganza with a local chef and cookbook author. Those with iron stomachs can join the onion eating contest.

vidalia onion festival air show



For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

world of coca cola taste it coke boyI have a confession: I can’t stand the taste of Coke.

Fortunately, this character flaw didn’t get me booted out of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta when I visited a few weeks ago. (To be fair, I don’t like Pepsi either.) Despite my bias, I didn’t want to miss out on one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so I tagged along with a few Coke-loving pals. Part museum, part advertisement, the World of Coca-Cola offers visitors a chance to watch the bottling process, meet the company’s famous polar bear and catch clips of old Coke commercials.

Frankly, I found all the exhibits and films a little hyper-promotional — but one part of the tour I did enjoy was the “Taste It!” exhibit, where you can sample more than 60 different Coca-Cola beverages from around the world. I discovered that I may not like ordinary Coke, but I do like South Africa’s fresh, fruity Bibo Kiwi Mango, as well as Estonia’s berry-flavored Fanta Magic. Of course, there were some duds too; my travel companions and I universally panned Italy’s Beverly drink, with its yucky chemical aftertaste. All told, Coca-Cola offers a staggering 3,500 different beverages worldwide (which gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “Always Coca-Cola” — you can’t escape the stuff!).

Coke isn’t the only brand that looks a little different when you encounter it overseas. Take McDonald’s. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Golden Arches is a hamburger and fries — but as we note in Strange International Foods: Our Top Seven, the restaurant has tailored its menus to fit regional tastes around the globe. Its Indian franchises have replaced the traditional Big Mac with a “Maharaja Mac” made from chicken instead of beef (to accommodate Hindu diners). The “McArabia” is popular in Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and features either chicken or kofta (spiced beef) wrapped in a pita-style bread.

I’m the type of traveler that generally tries to avoid big-name chains and products when traveling overseas; I’d rather sample local flavors and support homegrown businesses. But maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a familiar place and seeing it through a foreign lens. Maybe sometimes, even when you least expect it, it really is “the real thing.”

– written by Sarah Schlichter