We recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. We received a number of excellent submissions, detailing everything from excursions in Barbados to a whirlwind weekend in Bucharest.
Choosing the best review was a true challenge, but in the end we went with Christian Dew’s dispatch from the Netherlands, Going Dutch. Here’s an excerpt:
“I am a frequent visitor of the Netherlands and I love all things Dutch. Born and raised in America, a southern girl with a wanderlust mind, the Netherlands has a special place in my heart. Have you ever wanted to see the North Sea? Take a train through the Dutch countryside? Visit an old windmill? Go to a concert to see one of your favorite artists? Then I invite you to come and join me on this reading adventure of Going Dutch.” Read the rest!
While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:
A Trip Underground, Running from Killer Coconuts and Tripped by a Turtle by Andrea MacEachern: “The others in my group went in one direction and I walked in another, solo through the maze of paths, [enjoying] the serene sounds of leaves blowing softly in the wind and birds chirping until suddenly, that peacefulness was shattered by a loud, crashing thud followed by shouting. I thought I was alone in that area but on the other side of the trees to the right of me, a couple from my tour was enjoying a leisurely stroll, just like I was, when a coconut came crashing to the ground about a foot away from the man’s head.”
Fall family trip to Italy, France and Spain via cruise ship by Nancy Lorentson: “Day three was the Vatican. We had gotten self-guided tour tickets online … 20-something dollars each, which is well worth it as the lines are long. You go in the back door museum entrance and we saw the entire museum. Try to get there at opening when it is less crowded.”
Iceland During the Winter by Rae Ann Wright: “Here we enjoyed the first half of a full ‘Culinary Coastal and Countryside’ tour. We were able to focus on the seaside and materials from the sea as well as the first microbrewery in Iceland. All the producers we visited were small family firms, and for some the knowledge had traveled from generation to generation. They offered us to taste fresh fish, local microbrewery beer and salted cod.”
Feeling inspired? Share advice from your latest trip!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
As if we ever really need a reason to travel to Europe, the year 2015 nevertheless gives us several good excuses to shell out the money for a plane ticket across the pond.
The most important one is the dramatically improving exchange rate. The euro recently hit a 12-year low against the U.S. dollar, and could soon be worth less than the greenback. In addition, England, Lithuania, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are among the countries that offer particular justifications for a European sojourn, from celebrating important moments in history to commemorating a significant contributor to modern culture.
Here’s why you should consider visiting Europe this year.
England Celebrates the Creation of the Magna Carta
The document known as the Magna Carta, first written in 1215, was one of the first attempts to limit the power of a ruling entity and provide some level of freedom to “the people.” Over the years, the Magna Carta has inspired subsequent efforts, including the Constitution of the United States.
Six two- to four-day tourist itineraries have been created as part of the 800th anniversary celebration. Each “trail” covers a different aspect of the history of the Magna Carta and takes visitors to cities including London, Salisbury, Kent and others. Additionally, London’s Temple Church will be offering free London walking tours from June 1 to September 20. And for those who want to see copies of the original Magna Carta, there are four which will be displayed in various exhibits throughout the year.
13 Best England Experiences
200 Years Ago at Waterloo Napoleon Did Surrender
History and war buffs take note, one of the world’s largest battle reenactments will take place over two days this June in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. The battle saw the end of Napoleon’s reign and brought peace, at least for a little while, to much of Europe. More than 5,000 people, 300 horses and 100 cannons will be used in the reenactment, and all are welcome to come participate or simply watch. Can’t make it to the battlefield on the exact days? Onsite guides offer a several tours (including those designed for slow walkers) of the battlefield seven days a week. Several museums are also available including the visitor center on the battlefield site, the Wellington Museum in Waterloo and Napoleon’s headquarters on the main road nearby.
In Memoriam, 125 Years: Vincent Van Gogh
July 29, 2015, will mark 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh died. Exhibits celebrating his life and body of work will be offered to the public in cultural institutions and art museums all over the world. Some of the most impressive exhibits will be in the Netherlands, Van Gogh’s birthplace. At the Kroller-Muller Museum, located in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, you’ll find the Van Gogh & Co exhibit between April 25 and September 27. The exhibit will concentrate on art styles popular at the end of the 19th century — still lifes, vistas, cityscapes and portraits — and will include more than 50 works by Van Gogh, as well as several pieces from his contemporaries. From September 25 to the middle of January 2016, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will feature Munch: Van Gogh, which compares and contrasts the works of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch through the use of their paintings and drawings. One beautiful attraction to check out will be the Keukenhof Gardens, which in 2015 will have a theme of “Van Gogh, 125 Years of Inspiration.”
9 Best Netherland Experiences
Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity
Last year Germany threw a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, the country honors the 25th anniversary of the legal reunification of the country. The largest celebrations will take place on the Day of German Unity (October 3), but you can be sure the country will be raising a beer stein throughout the year.
Lithuania Makes History, Joins the Eurozone
Lithuania will become slightly less off-the-beaten-track in 2015 when the country becomes the 19th nation to join the Eurozone and adopt the euro as its national currency. The country’s entry into the Eurozone means that exchanging money will become simpler and credit card use will become more widespread, both of which make visiting the country easier.
12 Best Germany Experiences
— written by Dori Saltzman
I have a weird sense of humor. I admit it. So I was intrigued to discover that the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is home to an exhibit entitled “Dead Animals with a Story.”
Sure, there are dead animals in natural history museums all the time, but these had stories that involved things like dominos and McFlurry cups. I had to see this exhibit for myself.
So while everyone else from my river cruise went to see yet more Dutch artistry, I found my way to Rotterdam’s Museum of Natural History. It took three sets of directions before I found the small building tucked into the corner of Museum Square. That was just fine with me; all the wandering added to my sense of adventure. I was on a quest to find these storied animals.
For such a small museum, it also took me a while to find the exhibit that had so caught my attention. For starters, neither the map nor the museum’s signage was in English. So I headed up the stairs and into every room I could find. Nothing, just your usual stuffed animals on display.
Could I be mistaken? Had I found my way to the wrong museum? Had they scrapped the exhibit?
The World’s Weirdest Museums
Back down the stairs.
I was exiting yet another exhibit room, disappointed at my failure, when I spied the stuffed remains of a hedgehog with his head inserted into a McFlurry cup in a display case right at the entrance to the museum. I’d passed right by it!
The low, long, narrow display case was placed unobtrusively along the wall immediately inside of the entryway. The stuffed animals in the case were small and easy to miss — a house mouse, a tiny bat, a sparrow, the unfortunate hedgehog, numbered among the maybe 10 animals displayed.
But what made these poor critters different from the hundreds of other animals in the museum?
Well, the house mouse, for instance, wasn’t killed in just any old house. He (or she) was one of several hundred killed in 2012 when the Second Chamber (part of the country’s House of Representatives) experienced a mouse infestation. When the curator at the museum saw the news of the problem, it occurred to him that his collection did not have a house mouse in it. So he sent a request to the government asking if they would send one of their dead mice to him. His request was soundly refused. The government, he was told, does not give away its trash — of any kind. And yet, a few days later, a package in the official envelope of the Second Chamber showed up, no return addressee listed, with a dead mouse still in the trap enclosed.
Then there is the “domino sparrow.” This unfortunate bird had the dubious honor of garnering international attention when he was shot and killed after knocking down some 23,000 dominos (of nearly 4 million!) at the annual Domino Day event in Leeuwarden just four days before the event. The shooting outraged animal rights groups around the country, and they took the shooter and the organizers of Domino Day to court. Prosecutors opened an investigation and issued a 200 euro fine to the man who killed the bird.
In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters
And then there’s the hedgehog. His is a tale of environmental caution for everyone. Once quite large, the Netherlands’ hedgehog population has almost halved in the past 20 years. Though the main cause of death is cars, a significant number die after inserting their heads into ice cream cups (the kind with triangular openings for spoons) and then being unable to get back out because of the structure of their neck and spine. These poor critters either starve to death or run around blindly until they fall into a canal and drown. The specimen in the Rotterdam museum is one such unlucky hedgehog. The good news is that an animal lovers’ group in England lobbied McDonald’s to replace the McFlurry covers with those that have smaller holes, thereby protecting hedgehogs from this sad fate.
One caveat about the museum exhibit: all the signage is in Dutch. I had to turn to a Dutch guide on my river cruise for translations (based on photographs I’d taken of the exhibit). Therefore, most of my enjoyment of the displays came after the fact.
What’s the strangest exhibit you’ve ever come across in your travels?
— written by Dori Saltzman
Solo travel can be reflective, rewarding and exhilarating, but it also presents challenges. For some, eating alone is an experience that takes getting used to. (See Terror at the Table for One.)
Luckily, the times may be changing for solo diners. At Eenmaal, a restaurant in Amsterdam, you can feel secure in asking for a table of one because that’s all that’s available; you and your fellow diners all are eating alone, together.
Hailed as the first one-person restaurant in the world, Eenmaal (which means “one time” as well as “one meal” in Dutch) describes itself as “an attractive place for temporary disconnection.” The solo eatery takes its form as a pop-up restaurant, only open during select times in select locations, and it’s far from depressing — it’s always sold out, according to its website.
Marina van Goor, the social designer and mastermind behind Eenmaal, sought to create the restaurant as a social experiment to confront the concept of loneliness in the Internet Age. The idea has not only gained widespread media attention but has led to a rash of emerging pop-up eateries for one worldwide.
Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo
The idea already exists in Japan, where space is limited but ideas for unique eateries are plenty. Take this restaurant where you can dine (alone?) with stuffed animals, for example.
As for myself, I generally forgo the fluff and face the plate without any companionship — teddy bear included — although I admit the urge to check my phone might reach an uncomfortable level. The one time I decided to go to a local brunch spot by myself, I came equipped with a book, a notebook, a pen and plenty of ways to look busy — and I wasn’t even abroad! However, I ended up enjoying my pot of tea without needing further distraction. In a world filled with constant stimulation, I found that to be an accomplishment.
Take a Bite Out of Solo Dining
Now that solo dining is “in,” we want to know: Is it still awkward? Have you dined independently, or would you try it? Share in the comments below.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel
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 have you “seeing red.”
Would you rather…
… explore the Forbidden City in Beijing …
… stroll through the Netherlands during tulip season?
As we write in our Beijing travel guide, the Forbidden City lies just beyond Tiananmen Square, and is a “sprawling, walled encampment [that] once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties … It’s so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without leaving the 30-foot high walls of the city.” The Netherlands is famous for its colorful tulip season, which runs throughout April and May in various parts of the country. The gardens of Keukenhof are one of the best places to take in the display.
Vote for your preference in the comments below!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Hi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.
Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.
De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.
Our Favorite Hotels in Amsterdam
Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.
Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.
Learn More About Key West
The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700’s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Amsterdam has a lot going for it — like the Anne Frank House, boat rides along its storied canals, the Van Gogh Museum and cycling amongst the tulips (or green fields in less glamorous seasons than spring).
Visiting these places via a guide or a pre-arranged tour can certainly offer insights you might not otherwise get, but as an independent-minded traveler, I find usually them slow-moving, frustrating and — okay, I’ll say it — sometimes quite dry. So it was a big surprise to me that on my last visit to Amsterdam, a guided tour led to the best day I’ve ever had in that city.
Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Amsterdam
I’ve always been fascinated by the houseboats on Amsterdam’s canals, but the closest I’d ever gotten to visiting one was the city’s Houseboat Museum. And while I appreciated the history I learned there, the experience didn’t give me a true feel for life in Holland today. I found that instead on a walking tour offered by Van Aemstel Productions, which enabled me and other visitors not only to go inside local homes but also to meet their residents.
The locals were as interesting as their houses. One was a children’s book writer, another a television producer, a third a retired tour guide. One revealed the unique challenges of living in a houseboat — like the limited space; the patio that, while adorable, is visible to every tourist walking by; and the need to move out completely every few years so the boat can be brought into dry dock for hull inspection.
Another local welcomed us into his narrow 17th-century canal house, gamely maneuvering his broken leg up a set of ladder-steep steps to his top-floor apartment. Once there, he gave us impromptu concert on a harpsichord (on which he’d painted a gorgeous seafaring vista). Like the houseboat resident, he was willing to put up with a more challenging lifestyle in order to live in an atmosphere that was special, unique and central to the character of his city.
Van Aemstel Productions, it turns out, specializes in the kind of guided tours meant to give travelers insights into contemporary life, not just history. Perhaps on my next trip there I’ll check out its tour of the Red Light District, led by a former cop who walked that beat.
8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours
That tours could offer more than just history lessons was a revelation to me, and since then my antenna has been attuned to experiences in other cities that offer a sense of what’s real there. In San Francisco, for instance, Vayable.com offers a chance to learn about the city’s homeless issues via a tour with a gent who, indeed, is homeless; you can also forage for your own seafood with a local fisherman. Visitors to Buenos Aires might initially put a tango lesson or a visit to Eva Peron’s mausoleum on the top of their sightseeing lists, but personally, I love the sound of Vayable’s “In the footsteps of dictators” experience, which traces the city’s dark history. (Learn more about Vayable in Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local.)
I’ve become a guided tour convert — how about you? Share your favorite guided tours below!
— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
We 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
One of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new place is with local tour guides. Nobody knows a place like locals do. They know not only the beaten path (about which they can often reveal little-known facts), but also those gems I’d never find on my own. But most important for me, they offer cultural insights into a community that only someone who lives, sleeps and works there could possibly know.
Today, I stumbled upon a new twist on the local tour guiding concept – guided tours from the homeless. This adds an entirely new layer onto what visitors can learn about a place, its people and culture. And the best part is, not only do visitors gain a new perspective on life in the destination they’re visiting, but they’re also supporting people who need help.
My introduction to the concept came care of the Prague Daily Monitor, which reported on a tourism project that employs eight homeless people as tour guides. According to the article, the guides offer “the narration of less known stories and visits to special interesting places,” in both Prague’s center as well as on the outskirts of the city.
Prague Travel Guide
The guides use their “long-lasting experience with living in the street” to choose the places they want to share with visitors. One book-loving guide, for example, takes tourists to lesser-known bookshops where second-hand books are available.
Other guides take visitors to the places homeless people and squatters inhabit.
Prague is not the first city to offer such tours. A quick Google search turned up similar tours in London, San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Some, like the London tours, visit tourist favorites, where guides point out the usual as well as offer insights into what it’s like to be homeless there. Others, like the San Francisco tour, take visitors to the “invisible” spots like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and workplace training programs.
Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours
Would you take a tour led by a homeless person?
— written by Dori Saltzman
I recently returned from a marvelous trip to Amsterdam, where I toured museums, ogled tulips, sipped jenever, ate pickled herring and explored the city’s canals and historical monuments — by myself.
I was informed early on that I’d be on my own for the trip, which was my first to the Netherlands. To put it mildly, I was terrified. I’d heard horror stories about pickpockets and districts of the red-light variety, and I’ll do just about anything to avoid dining by myself. But, as someone who has an abysmal sense of direction, I was most worried about finding my own way through the city without the help of a travel companion.
Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo
Some people cringe at the idea of traveling alone, but overall, I was relieved to discover that in Amsterdam nearly everyone speaks English, maps are plentiful and the train system is easy to use. (I only got lost twice!)
The most important takeaway for me, however, was that I was able to do the trip at my own pace. In addition to spreading myself out in my non-shared hotel room, I went to sleep when I wanted, I woke up when I wanted, I walked everywhere, and I saw/toured/tasted more than 20 of Amsterdam’s most popular landmarks/museums/foods and beverages in just four days. The freedom to go at such a break-neck pace is something I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d brought a friend.
Have you traveled alone? If not, would you consider it? If so, what are some of the fun experiences you’ve had solo? Leave your comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek