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amazon river la estrella amazonicaI’ve cruised the Amazon River before — but this time was different.

My first two voyages stuck to the Brazilian part of the waterway and were on mainstream ships. The regions we traveled through were a backdrop to life onboard — a variety of restaurants, formal nights and lavish entertainment. Shore excursions on these trips barely scratched the surface of local life and nature, and there was little Amazon influence in our food, beverages or entertainment.

In contrast, this trip — a seven-day International Expeditions itinerary departing from Iquitos, Peru — was the most immersive cruise I’ve ever taken, with Peruvian music, food and wine onboard, and a wide range of in-depth experiences, both natural and cultural.

As a first-timer to the world of expedition cruising, I wondered if I’d miss the little luxuries of big-ship cruise travel. I need not have worried. The 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica was delightful, and as you can see from my wrap-up, the trip contained very, very few missteps.

HITS

Amazonian Education: All International Expeditions’ trips emphasize wildlife, and our ship’s pair of naturalist guides, who both hailed from the region, were passionate and knowledgeable. They could identify what seemed to be thousands of species of birds, guide a kayaking trip down a creek while offering sightings of monkeys swinging between trees, and expertly bait a hook to catch a fleet of piranhas.

For me, though, it was the interaction with locals that really captured the spirit of the trip. Both guides chatted up people we came across — in villages, even fishermen in their dug-out canoes.

amazon river la estrella amazonicaThe Boat: Cruising the Amazon for nearly 20 years via chartered boats, International Expeditions cemented its commitment to the river this year by designing and building its first-ever custom ship. The result, La Estrella Amazonica, is lovely. All cabins have private balconies — a first for any Amazon river operator.

The best spot onboard is the fabulous open-air sundeck and bar, with super-comfy wicker couches, barstools and round tables that make it feel like an airy, spacious Peruvian living room.

Peruvian Food: The ship’s Peruvian-born chef didn’t pander to American palates, and menus strongly reflected comfort-style Amazonian cuisine. Occasionally there was a theme night — such as Chinese, which is hugely popular in this region, and even Italian — but the real stars were the seafood, rice, beans, fresh fruit juices and salads.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

The Music: We loved the nightly jam sessions held onboard during the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Almost every member of the crew — from housekeepers to boat drivers — participated, playing an eccentric mix of songs, from Peruvian folk tunes to the Beatles.

Waterlogged: Being part of a 31-passenger ship gives you the up-close-and-personal access you’d never find on a big ship. There was lots to see along the river — villages, bus-boats that transport locals (and their cows, coal and crops) between Iquitos and Nauta, and other similar-sized cruise ships operated by Lindblad and Aqua Expeditions.

But the real discoveries, particularly wildlife, were better found on smaller tributaries via flat-bottomed skiffs. In a week, we logged some 185 miles on the skiffs (La Estrella Amazonica itself trawled nearly 500 miles during the cruise), where we embarked on jungle walks, swimming and kayaking.

MISSES

amazon river piranhaGetting There: Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s Amazon basin, is the starting point for cruises operated by all the major players in the region, but getting there is an adventure in its own right. First, you fly to Lima, then catch a connecting 1.5-hour flight to Iquitos. For some cruises, it’s then another 1.5-hour drive along a winding jungle road to a village called Nauta (thankfully, we were spared that extra long drive).

Most international flights from the U.S. arrive in the wee hours of the morning and depart in the middle of the night. Our advice: Plan to get to Lima with a couple of days to spare — and explore that city before heading out on your Amazon adventure. Iquitos is also an interesting outpost.

Moving Around: Aside from a kayaking adventure and a couple of jungle hikes, it was surprising how sedentary the activities were. Much time was spent eyeing wildlife from the skiffs, and unlike in Europe where towpaths for cyclists and joggers line the rivers, there’s no easy access to exercise on the Amazon.

On the plus side: La Estrella Amazonica has a small fitness facility, with two treadmills and two spinning cycles.

Shops, Restaurants and Nightlife: There aren’t any! Aside from a pair of village visits, where local women presented their handicrafts for sale, this is a nature-oriented experience. The best shopping and dining we had was in Lima.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

packingAs I prepare for my latest voyage, the packing checklist looks a lot like the usual, at least on the surface. New shoes? Absolutely. A few new items of clothing? Why not. A camera, raincoat and Kindle are also among the staples I lug around from one trip to the next.

But this is no “normal” voyage. On this trip — my first-ever soft adventure cruise — I’m traveling on International Expeditions’ 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica down the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most remote and exotic sections of this mighty river. And while pictures make the line’s new Amazonica ship look quite comfortable (nice touch: balconies with every cabin!), the places we’ll be visiting in the jungle might not be so forgiving.

My past cruise experience has focused on mainstream, luxury and European river lines, so for this otherworldly adventure I turned to International Expeditions’ recommended packing list.

Among the items: “strong” insect repellent, insect-bite relief products, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue packs (for off-the-ship toilets), sunburn relief, and medication for diarrhea, altitude sickness and motion sickness. I also visited a doctor for a prescription for malaria pills, just in case, and to make sure my hepatitis A shot was up to date.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

As far as clothes go, a wide-brimmed straw hat came “highly recommended” (it’s actually kind of cute). I splurged on Skechers walking shoes and some not-so-flattering khaki cargo pants from L.L.Bean that I’m told will be a godsend (because they dry quickly). To avoid attracting insects, clothing in dark shades is highly discouraged — a challenge right there since my urban travel wardrobe revolves around black … everything. A forage to the back of my closet yielded treasures like white, linen, long-sleeved blouses (turns out I had three that were virtually identical!).

The niftiest tip on the list? On this cruise, a seven-night roundtrip from Peru‘s Iquitos, we will visit a local school, and passengers are encouraged to pick up supplies to donate. Tucked into my pile are Crayola markers, a box of pens, folders and notebooks.

The packing part of this adventure isn’t over yet. Even as I head to the airport for my flight to Lima, where I’ll meet up with fellow passengers before heading to the boat, I’m keenly aware of the one item I’ve failed to procure. Turns out piranhas, purring monkeys and bizarre puss caterpillars are not to be feared; the real predator on the Peruvian Amazon is the mighty skeeter, due to dengue fever (which doesn’t have a vaccine). Super-strong insect repellent is nowhere to be found in central New Jersey right now, where freezing temperatures mean there’s not a mosquito in sight and shops aren’t currently stocking the stuff.

I also failed to buy the recommended tube socks, which protect ankles from chiggers — but I’m not too worried. To this inveterate travel shopper, it’s just one more excuse to prowl around Lima’s shops before our group heads to the boat.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

greenwich village apartment buildingsAirbnb, the social website that connects travelers with locals who are willing to rent out living spaces on a short-term basis, scored a big victory in New York last week. The back story: Nigel Warren, a New York-based Airbnb host who had rented out his bedroom while he himself was traveling, was fined $2,400 for violating local laws that make it illegal to rent out a home for less than 30 days.

This matter potentially had massive ramifications, not just for Airbnb but also for travelers, who have flocked to the site to find value-priced lodgings with a local feel and ambience, rather than high-priced hotels. Airbnb hosts rent out apartments, houses and spare rooms.

In support for Warren and other hosts in New York, Airbnb worked with Warren to appeal the fine. A clarification by the New York City Environmental Control Board was handed down last week. The ruling articulated that hosts can rent out rooms as long as a permanent occupant of the home is in residence (in Warren’s case, his roommate, who was also on the lease, was present).

“In the appeal, we and Nigel argued — and the appeal board now agrees — that under New York law as long as a permanent occupant is present during a stay, the stay does not violate New York’s short term rental laws,” wrote David Hantman, Airbnb’s Head of Global Public Policy, on the company’s blog.

Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals

The bottom line for New Yorkers: It’s still okay to rent out a spare room if you’re present at the time, and it’s still illegal to rent out an apartment that you don’t live in. But the news is that as long as some permanent occupant is there, even if you as the host are not, your rental is legal.

The battle’s not fully over yet in New York, as this new development does not protect those who rent out empty apartments. (There are currently more than 1,000 such listings on Airbnb.com.) Still, it’s a start — and Warren gets his fine refunded.

All eyes now turn to a similar battle now playing out in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake. Stay tuned.

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

seatbelt seat belt airplaneAs we learn more about how Asiana Airlines’ Flight 214′s crash landing at San Francisco Airport wasn’t as tragic as it could have been, the water cooler debate on network chat shows today is focusing on whether some airplane seats are safer than others.

Conventional wisdom has long theorized that the safest seats are in the back of the plane. And yet, as we report in How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life, studies (and airline experts) don’t necessarily agree. One study, carried out by the British Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with Greenwich University, concluded that passengers are safer in the front of the plane. But Popular Mechanics did an in-depth examination of flight crash occurrences and determined that the rear is a safer place to sit. The Discovery Channel came to a similar conclusion in Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash, which put cameras inside a Boeing 727 as it crashed in the Sonoran Desert. (The video is worth a watch, though the scientists’ fascination and excitement as they watch the crash footage may strike some as a bit macabre in the wake of the Asiana incident.)

Clearly, there’s no one prevailing view on the safest place to sit on an aircraft, which is understandable when you realize that part of the reason studies are in conflict is that not all crashes — or airplane models — are the same. In the Asiana incident, for instance, the angle of impact severed the plane’s tail, and CNN noted that many injured passengers were seated in the rear.

Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.”

Five Foods to Avoid Before Flying

The good news is that the aviation industry, as ABC World News Tonight reports, has made major and life-saving improvements to protect passengers during emergencies, including sturdier seats, improved flame retardancy on planes and enhanced rescue efforts. But for the moment, as the post-Asiana crash news continues to emerge — and we anxiously await updates on both the status of passengers who were injured and the cause of the crash — we can take some comfort in this, also from ABC News:

“Riding on a commercial airplane has got about the same amount of risk as riding on an escalator,” says MIT International Center for Air Transportation Director John Hansman, Jr.

Poll: Are You a Nervous Flier?

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

amsterdam harpsichordAmsterdam 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

baggage claim airportAs a experienced traveler, I know all the right things to do when it comes to making sure you go home with your own luggage. I have a very distinctive red Rimowa suitcase (I’ve never encountered one quite like it), I’ve tied colored ribbons around one handle, and there are some flight and hotel labels stuck on it — so it’s hard to miss.

But last year, after a 10-hour flight from Helsinki and a 1.5-hour wait at Newark’s border control, I was tired and distracted, and when a red suitcase came around the belt, I grabbed it and set off. The wheels were wobbly, which I chucked up to yet another annoyance in an annoying day. Literally 10 steps past the customs agent, I bent down to check out what had happened to the wheels, and that was the moment I knew: this was not my suitcase. It was an absolutely identical model, but there were no ribbons, no decals.

What to Do if an Airline Loses Your Luggage

I immediately went back to the customs agent to ask if I could swap the suitcase, but he said, “No can do” (which was understandable). He called an agent from my airline, who told me that I’d eventually get my suitcase back — but because I had cleared customs it would take three or four hours. Hanging around wasn’t a palatable solution, so I anted up about $82 to have it delivered the next day.

I consider the whole affair an $82 learning experience. And I felt badly for the person whose suitcase it really was (and hope she’ll get those wheels fixed someday).

What’s the silliest travel mistake you made in 2012?

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

gift beach palm treeTravel-related gift guides for this year’s holiday season are, no question, a helpful way to get a bead on what’s fun and new for the travelers in your life. They’re also alarmingly efficient, especially those that you find online, because with a couple of clicks on the keyboard, you’ve bought and shipped. Marvelous.

But there’s a downside. These online gift guides are proving to be way too tempting for self-indulgence. Thanks to Cruise Critic, IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, I’ve learned about Gin & Titonic, a ship and iceberg ice cube tray that describes its appeal as “watch the ship sink in your drink.” Price: a paltry $8.65. How could I not treat myself?

Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice

Over at the New York Times travel section, a pack of paper soaps for $5 (great for washing clothes on the road) is a brilliant idea — so brilliant I bought a stash.

And on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Daily Traveler,” the Rimowa Limbo Multiwheel hard-sided carry-on in midnight blue, boasting a breathtaking $875 price tag, would strain my budget — but boy, is it gorgeous.

The first item on CNN’s list grabbed me right off: an iPhone lens dial with three different lenses for $250. I’m thinking of it as an investment in my photo shooting ability (or lack thereof).

Perhaps there ought to be a guilt-relieving gift-buying ratio for the holiday season. What would you think is fair — say, after every five presents bought for someone else, we all deserve a little treat for ourselves?

It’s also only fair to say that the travel gift that got me most excited to give — to others! — is one I found right here on IndependentTraveler.com. (See 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts for the full list.) On Excitations.com, I can pick out fun tours, like kayaking in San Francisco Bay or feeding a big cat in Miami. Best of all? I can personalize each experience to meet the travel interests of my gift recipients.

Sure is a lot more fun than an Amazon gift card.

10 Tips for Holiday Travel

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

airport shoppingPeople who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”

As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.

On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.

And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.

The Ultimate Travel Packing Guide

Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”

So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

us passport globeOne oft-forgotten rule of international travel is that many countries won’t allow you to enter if your passport‘s expiration date is less than six months away. It certainly was a rule that I forgot about until I was reminded by a cruise line that my European voyage next month would be null and void if I didn’t have a new passport number, even though I have a few months left to go on the old one.

Which meant I was in “your passport must be expedited” territory.

I assumed my Google search of “need to renew passport” would lead me straight to the State Department’s Web site. It didn’t. Instead, I ended up in the nether regions of a for-profit site called USPassportOnline.com. Clicking along obliviously — the Web site makes it somewhat but not overly clear that it’s not the official State Department site — I registered for the renewal. I checked off the box for the $45 nonrefundable fee even as a flickering in my brain began to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t where I intended to go.

It wasn’t until I started downloading the renewal forms that it twigged: This is a for-profit service with for-profit prices. US Passport Online passes along the State Department’s $170 official fee ($110 for the passport + $60 for expedited service) but then tacks on an additional $54 for processing, the aforementioned $45 nonrefundable reservation fee and $30 for shipping. And that was for service in 8 – 12 business days; charges rise steeply if your turn-around time is shorter. My bill totaled $299.

In contrast, the State Department charges $110 for the passport, $25 for processing, a mere $12.72 for overnight shipping and $60 for expediting — a grand total of $207.72, almost $100 less.

I don’t know about you, but spending nearly $100 extra for nothing special makes me cranky. And while I could have, and should have, paid closer attention while submitting my request, US Passport Online’s Web site, with its red, white and blue color scheme, really could be mistaken for the official “passport” site.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

In a call to the company’s toll-free hotline, I expressed my dismay about the process, and the sales representative’s terse response led me to believe he fields a lot of these calls from frustrated travelers. I canceled the order. The kicker? In an e-mail confirming the cancellation, US Passport Online notes that the refund, minus the $45 cancellation fee, will take a jaw-dropping “12 – 15 business days from your cancellation date” to return to my coffers.

Was it all just a scam? Not necessarily. Using a for-profit expeditor makes good sense if you have a really challenging turn-around time (less than a week) or if you don’t live near a regional passport agency where you can apply in person. (See Passport and Visa Expeditors for more info.) But otherwise, there’s nothing easier or cheaper about using them over the State Department.

In checking out other expeditors for my not-quite-an-emergency needs, I noticed that CIBT.com at least didn’t use US Passport Online’s stars and stripes Web page design to confuse you into thinking it was part of the State Department’s passport services, but it still wasn’t terribly helpful; you have to go through the whole process of registering to find out what the fees are (or call its toll-free number and wait on hold; I hung up after 10 minutes). At G3 Visas & Passports, the pricing info is right up front and seemingly easy to access; my two-week expedite cost would have been $245, but there was no mention of special fees and, yes, you have to go through the registration process to find out what other costs there are.

Ultimately, I was most comfortable with simply going through the U.S. State Department’s passport renewal service. I made an appointment for my nearby office in Philadelphia, planned it around a lunch with an old friend and saved money in the bargain.

5 Common Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Independent Traveler Editor Sarah Schlichter readily admits she’s a core member of the “independent traveler” tribe, but she confesses, there are times when the best way to see a place is from a ship. One of those spots is Alaska, where she is traveling this week aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion.

Schlichter is chronicling her adventures daily — and by that we don’t mean the usual cruise-like forays into Diamonds International stores during visits to ports of call — over on Facebook, but we thought we’d also share a few tidbits on the blog.

Tell us, whether you’re a cruise fan or not: What places in the world are actually better seen from cruise ships than from land trips?

boot-sucking mud

Boot-sucking mud and a breath-taking view in Alaska. The ship in the distance is the National Geographic Sea Lion.



kelp bay

Kayaking in Kelp Bay, Alaska, was one of three morning activities offered.



humpback whale

Every humpback whale has a unique pattern on its tail. This is one of at least a dozen we spotted during one day in Alaska aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion.



Cruising for Independent Travelers

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown