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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

sea turtle babyI love animals, and I love travel. Combine the two, and I’m all smiles. Whether it’s volunteer work, taking a tour or finding a new pet, there are lots of ways to involve yourself with different species while you travel close to home. Below is a list of five examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments, too.

Sea Turtle Release

This annual occurrence — generally late-June through mid-August — at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, allows spectators to watch as groups of newly hatched baby sea turtles are gently nudged toward the sea by park officials. Anywhere from 15 to 25 releases per year are open to the public.

Manatee Observation

Florida is a great place to catch a glimpse of manatees in the wild. A perfect spot to see them is at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Just remember: they’re wild animals, so don’t touch them as you enjoy the views of them swimming around in front of you.

Hermit Crab Adoption

If you’re in the market for a low-maintenance pet, stop by Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and purchase some hermit crabs. Be sure to buy at least two, as they’re social animals who thrive in groups. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t throw-away pets, and they do require a small level of care.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Miniature Horse Rehabilitation

Volunteer at the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, North Dakota, where abused and unwanted miniature horses are brought to live or be rehabilitated for adoption.

Cow-Milking on a Working Dairy Farm

Try your hand at milking a cow, and interact with goats at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, which offers tours three times a day from April through October.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

what people have forgotten at hotelsEver 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.

“You Want What?”: Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

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.

Finding Hotel Rooms: No Vacancy? No Problem

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).

What have you left behind in a hotel room?

– written by Dori Saltzman

roller coasterAs if amusement park rides weren’t scary enough, now comes word of two incidents — one fatal — over the past week involving thrill-seekers in New Jersey and Ohio.

First, the good news: According to a report in the Asbury Park Press, your “odds of being seriously injured at one of the United States’ 400 fixed-site amusement parks are 1-in-9 million.” It goes on to quote a rep from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as saying 280 million people visit U.S. parks annually, taking 1.7 billion rides.

The Asbury Park story was printed in reaction to the death of an 11-year-old girl on June 4 at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, N.J. The girl, who was visiting the park on a class trip, fell almost 100 feet from a Ferris wheel. No fault has been determined, though officials say the 156-foot Giant Wheel recently passed state inspections and no mechanical problems were found. The next day, seven riders on the WildCat ride at Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park were injured when a car failed to brake at the end of the ride, causing it to slam into another loaded car. The injuries were minor.

The back-to-back incidents are coincidental, of course. There’s no telling right now how the girl fell from the Ferris wheel gondola (Did she stand up? Did the door unlatch unexpectedly?), but it’s frightening nonetheless. I’m an amusement park junkie, and every time I’m strapped into a ride I wonder if I’m going to make it off alive. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

I draw the line at rides at carnivals and fairs — something that arrived on a truck the day before and was assembled in the predawn hours just screams “Avoid!” to me. And I’m never quite sure if I can trust that creepy dude at the controls.

That said, good Jersey boy that I am, I’ve been to Morey’s Pier dozens of times, and I’ve never thought twice about jumping on the attractions (that Ferris wheel has always been too tall for me, however). I also frequent the boardwalk rides up the coast in Seaside Heights. You may know it as home to the “Jersey Shore” crew. I know it as home to the scariest ride I’ve ever been on.

It’s a roller coaster tucked into the nether regions of Seaside’s Casino Pier. It’s not tall or particularly fast, but it always looks rusty to me. The cars are cramped and don’t seem particularly well affixed to the track. The coaster’s metal frame shakes when you’re going up the first hill, and the chain pulling the cars makes an ungodly drone. Each turn at the top makes you feel as if you’re going to be dumped into the ocean, which is perhaps 70 feet or so below. The ride ends with a screech and, I swear, the smell of burning rubber.

I have to go on it once a year, or my summer isn’t complete.


– written by John Deiner