Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 4.8 million
Phrase to Know: Slainte (cheers — a toast)
Fun Fact: A popular legend about St. Patrick, the country’s patron saint, is that he banished snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century. However, researchers at the National Museum of Ireland have pooh-poohed this legend because there is no fossil evidence that snakes ever lived in Ireland in the first place.
Amid all the shamrocks, soda bread and green beer, it takes a lot to cut through the St. Patrick’s Day clutter — but Liam Neeson has done it with a warmhearted video recently released by Tourism Ireland. Combining a beautifully delivered voiceover with footage of rolling green hills, crumbling cathedral ruins and smiling locals, Neeson helps us understand Ireland’s enduring appeal. Check out the video below:
I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me, but after viewing that video, I’m ready to drop everything and plan a trip. What about you?
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 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.
China 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.
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 holidays being celebrated today, March 17.
Would you rather…
… join the St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Ireland, or …
… throw brightly colored powder to celebrate Holi in India?
St. Patrick’s Day, which honors the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated with parades, green clothing and the odd drink or two by the Irish diaspora around the world. Holi is a Hindu festival that honors the coming of spring with frolicking and the flinging of colorful powder; it’s observed primarily in India and other South Asian nations.
I’ve always had a long bucket list. At last count it was up to 19 experiences, and already I despaired of ever crossing them all off. Then IndependentTraveler.com launched a new series of destination slideshows featuring 10 to 13 amazing (and often little known) things to do in countries around the world. And bang, my bucket list jumped from 19 to 25 in a matter of minutes. Now I’ve had a sneak peek at two of our upcoming slideshows, covering Turkey and France, and I’m pretty sure that 25 is about to go up to 27.
Because “misery” loves company, I feel compelled to share those experiences that most resonated with me. Lock down your bucket lists before reading on or you may find your list of must-do travel experiences growing too.
Did you know you can spend the night in an ancient cave in Italy? Neither did I until I started researching unusual things to do in the country. But once I read about the Matera cave hotels I was hooked. The idea of staying in a cave some ancient human may have slept in (but also having indoor plumbing!) is amazing to me. And the photos of the hotels with low-hanging stone ceilings, claw-foot bathtubs and candle-lit niches … all I can say is, I’ve definitely got to get there someday.
Call of the Jungle
I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m way more excited by the thought of staying in a jungle eco-lodge (or the aforementioned caves) than a posh, five-star hotel. And though I always knew Costa Rica was the destination for eco-travelers, I didn’t realize how funky and fun-sounding the lodges there are. Like the Pacuare Jungle Lodge, which you can only get to via a whitewater rafting trip or a gondola ride. Talk about the middle of the jungle!
Barging Right In
I readily admit I’m a bit of a Celtophile. Ireland is one of my favorite countries. I’ve been there four times and intend to go back again (and again!). But I thought I was pretty familiar with all the country had to offer until I wrote the 12 Best Ireland Experiences slideshow. I had no idea you could travel the country’s waterways on your own! Imagine steering your own barge peacefully along the river from near Dublin down to the Waterford area. Read a book, wave to the locals walking along the water, stop in a village for a brew at the neighborhood pub. What a lovely way to see Ireland’s picturesque towns and villages!
I don’t know what it is about primeval forests that catch my fancy. There’s just something about the immensity of them — towering trees, lofty stone cliffs, darkness carpeting the forest floor punctured by bolts of sunlight — that makes me catch my breath. So learning about the Saxon Switzerland National Park in East Germany was an eye-opener. With its tall limestone needles, evergreen-carpeted cliff faces, and miles of hikable forests, meadows and fields, this national secret is now firmly planted on my bucket list.
They had me at yurt. Yes, I said yurt, and I don’t even have to trek all the way to Mongolia. No, I can jet across the pond, make my way to a scenic English forest — the kind Robin Hood could make a home in — spend the day horseback riding and sampling the cider at a local pub called the King’s Arms, and then spend the night in an authentic Mongolian yurt. How cool is that!
Shh, Don’t Tell
We haven’t launched our Turkey and France slideshows yet, but I can tell you I’m very excited to learn more about sea kayaking over the ancient ruins of a Turkish city and exploring the Celtic history of France’s Brittany region. Stay tuned.
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 is from Ireland‘s dramatic Cliffs of Moher.
Newfoundland may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about traveling somewhere for its music. Instead, you might think Ireland for its Celtic sounds or New Orleans for great jazz; Nashville is world-famous for country music, while Salzburg and Vienna resonate with loves of classical.
But for me the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland ranks near the top of my list of for destinations I want to visit for their rich musical heritage. The city and island are steeped in maritime traditions including a love of rollicking sea shanties influenced by the Irish, English and Scottish sailors who alit on its shores centuries ago.
Want a taste of what Newfoundland has been known to serve up, musically speaking? Check out this clip from a Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival.
Other places high on my list of must-visit musical destinations include Ireland and Cape Breton.
I have yet to make it to Newfoundland or Cape Breton, but I’ve been to Ireland four times. One of my favorite trips included two nights in the small town of Doolin, where impromptu seisiúns popped up nightly.
Have you ever traveled somewhere just because of its musical traditions or history? Which cities call to you because an artist or music movement was born there?
Many years ago, on a three-week tour of Ireland, a friend and I found ourselves on the streets of Dingle in the rain, waiting for our small tour bus to come pick us up. It was cold, and we huddled together beneath one small umbrella trying to stay warm. As we stood there shivering, the colorful front door of one of the small houses up the street swung open, and an older woman stepped out and waved to us.
“Come in, come in,” she yelled.
My friend and I looked at the woman, looked at each other and then jogged up the street and into a small, but warm living room. For the next 30 minutes, the woman plied us with hot tea and biscuits, asked us questions and showed us pictures of her family. When it was time to meet our tour bus, she gave us each a friendly hug goodbye.
Fifteen years later I sadly do not remember her name, but her kindness and friendliness toward us, strangers in her town, will never fade from my memory. And she is not the only truly friendly soul I’ve met on my travels in Ireland. There was the father in Northern Ireland with his two young children who picked my sister and me up off the side of the road and rushed us to the ferry port so we wouldn’t miss our boat, and the bus driver in Dublin who drove us to our hostel even though he was on his break and then refused to take money from us.
Because of these experiences, and the overall atmosphere of its inhabitants towards visitors, Ireland remains, in my opinion, the friendliest of all the 30-some countries I’ve visited. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, I am not alone in finding Ireland to be a super-friendly tourist destination.
In the report, “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013,” 140 countries are ranked according to the attractiveness and competitiveness of their travel and tourism industries. One of the criteria included in the rankings is the attitude of the country’s citizens towards foreign visitors. Ireland ranked ninth.
Iceland leads the pack of friendliest countries, followed by New Zealand, Morocco, Macedonia, Austria, Senegal, Portugal, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rounding off the top 10 is Burkina Faso.
Honestly, I was a bit surprised to see a few of those countries on the list, and also saddened that Australia (another of my top five friendliest countries) was left off (it ranked 27th overall). Another surprise (or maybe it’s not??) — the United States came in fairly low, placing 102 out of 140.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bolivia ranks as the most unwelcoming country for visitors, followed by Venezuela, Russia, Kuwait, Latvia, Iran, Pakistan, the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria and Mongolia.
Ever forgotten you were traveling with your mother and left her behind at the hotel after you checked out? How about your spouse? While you may have wanted to leave him or her behind, a poll by LastMinute.com of 500 hotels around the world found that these scenarios actually have happened.
In Prague a man left his wife behind – the hotel didn’t say if it was accidental or planned! And a hotel in Ireland reported a traveler forgot that his mother was with him and left without her.
Perhaps even odder are items left behind that someone probably shouldn’t have been traveling with in the first place. For instance, a man left behind snails in a Budapest hotel room. Maybe he was planning on asking the chef to cook him some escargot? Another guest, in a U.S. hotel, left behind $10,000 in cash.
Snails aren’t the only animal guests have left behind. A hotel in Washington discovered a customer had forgotten his snake, while a dog was left behind by its owner in a Milan hotel.
Another big “oops”: a police officer forgot his gun and badge in Las Vegas. I guess what goes to Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Of course, more commonly left behind are cell phone, camera and laptop chargers. Passports are another oft-forgotten item.
Reading about what other people have forgotten in their hotel rooms got me to thinking, what kinds of stuff have I left behind?
I’ve been pretty lucky. The worst thing I’ve forgotten was a favorite pair of black evening pants (which I still miss very much, by the way). But I remember a time, back when I was a kid, when my family discovered on the drive home from New England that my sister had left behind her beloved stuffed duck, Engineer. I don’t know how far from the hotel we had gotten, but we turned right around to go back and get him.
Overall, the writers here at IndependentTraveler.com are pretty good about remembering to check their hotel rooms before leaving. But a few of us learned this the hard way.
Adam Coulter, the senior editor at the U.K. office of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, recently left behind his iPod speakers, an electric toothbrush charger, a hooded sweater, several T-shirts and his swimsuit at a hotel in New Jersey.
Another CruiseCritic.co.uk staffer, Jamey Bergman, and his wife left their laptop behind in a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Luckily all turned out well as the hotel FedExed the computer to their final destination free of charge (though they still argue over whose fault it was).
I’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.
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.
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.
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.