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kathy mccabe dream of italy pasta pugliaFew travelers are as passionate about Italy as Kathy McCabe, who’s spent more than a decade as the publisher of a newsletter and website called Dream of Italy, dedicated to discovering every corner of the Boot. Starting this year you can also catch her Italian explorations on TV as part of a new series on PBS, also called “Dream of Italy.” You can find the schedule and watch full episodes online at her website.

We reached out to McCabe to find out her favorite immersive experiences in Italy, her advice for first-timers and more info about her new series.

IndependentTraveler.com: Why is Italy so eternally appealing to many travelers?
Kathy McCabe:
Italy has everything — ancient cities, stunning beaches, warm people, the best food in the world, 60 percent of the world’s art. I’m not sure of another country that offers as much as Italy, but maybe I am partial!

IT: What can viewers expect from your new “Dream of Italy” TV series on PBS?
KM:
Viewers can expect a different side of Italy from the usual tourist attractions — authentic is a word that seems overused these days, but I think it is one of the best words to describe the people we meet and experiences we have in the show.

We feature real Italians living their passions, from a goat farmer in Italy who makes goat cheese to an artist in Rome who teaches the ancient art of mosaics. One of my favorite segments features the Tuscan cowboys of the Maremma — there are only a few of them left. (Check out this clip in the video below.) I’m proud that not only are we giving viewers great travel ideas, but we are preserving Italian culture for future generations.



IT: Which region of Italy would you say is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
KM:
One of my favorite less-visited regions is Puglia — the region of Italy on the heel, facing Greece — though it is really becoming more popular. We even devoted an entire episode of the TV series to Puglia. Puglia has 500 miles of stunning coastline: beautiful empty beaches and fortified harbors. The olive trees in the region are gargantuan and dot the landscape. You will also see trulli, small white stone huts. And the people, like all Italians, are warm and welcoming.

IT: What are your favorite immersive/hands-on experiences in Italy?
KM:
I love taking cooking classes in Italy, and these are accessible to every traveler (in the Dream of Italy print newsletter, we devoted two full issues to Italy’s best cooking schools). You can easily fit a half-day cooking class into a trip, and it’s a great way to learn about the culture through food and to interact with locals.

Another great experience is enjoying a dinner in a local home through Home Food. The hosts go through a rigorous selection process and speak English.

IT: What one piece of advice would you give travelers planning their first visit to Italy?
KM:
As hard as it is, don’t over-plan or try to do too much. I have been to Italy more than 35 times and I still haven’t seen every region. Pick a few places to focus on, and be sure to leave time for serendipity!

IT: Outside of Italy, what are your other favorite travel destinations?
KM:
Most of my travels are to Italy, but when I have the chance to travel somewhere else, I have found it hard to tear myself away from Europe. (I guess I made a good choice in college when I majored in European studies.) France was my first love — one summer in college, I studied in the exquisite towns of Annecy and Talloires in the Alps. Ireland is another favorite European destination. The people are so warm, just like the Italians.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

jetblue plane in flightWe first got wind of the impending bad news last year, and now it’s come to pass: JetBlue will no longer include one free checked bag with the cost of all its flights.

The discount carrier has rolled out a new fare structure, effective today, that offers varying baggage and other fees depending on how much you pay for your flight. If you book the cheapest available fare category, known as Blue, you’ll have to pay $20 or $25 for your first checked bag on most itineraries (it varies based on where you pay it — Web check-in, kiosk or airport counter). The second bag costs $35 in this fare category.

If you pay a little more for the Blue Plus fare, you’ll get one checked bag free, with the second costing $35. If you want to bring two complimentary checked bags, you’ll have to pony up for either the Blue Flex or Mint fare. (The latter is only available on cross-country flights.)

You can still get a free checked bag in any fare category if you’re headed to one of the following destinations: Santo Domingo, Santiago, Port-au-Prince, Port of Spain, Kingston, Cartagena, Medellin, Bogota, Lima or Mexico City.

Other differences between the fare categories include cancellation and change fees, which are highest for Blue passengers, a little lower for Blue Plus and free for Blue Flex. The full fare chart is below (click to see a larger version):

jetblue fare chart


We did a few test searches to check out the fare differences between categories. On a flight between New York and Chicago, the Blue Plus fare was $15 more in each direction than the Blue fare, while the Blue Flex fare was $100 more each way than the cheapest option. That means it would actually be cheaper to book the Blue Plus fare than to buy the Blue fare and check a single bag.

When we changed the itinerary to San DiegoFort Lauderdale, however, that wasn’t the case; the difference was $30 – $31 each way between Blue and Blue Plus and $100 each way between Blue and Blue Flex.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Southwest is now the only American airline that offers free checked bags to all passengers.

Will these changes make you more or less likely to fly JetBlue?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

child pool africaIn this month’s featured review, reader Barbara Helveston discovers that even a 4-year-old can appreciate Africa’s many natural wonders. “After a couple of days, we boarded an eight-hour flight to Johannesburg, a quick overnight and a short flight to Victoria Falls where we promptly fell in love with everything Africa,” she writes. “We stayed at the Zambezi River Lodge … a lodge hotel with all the amenities situated on the Zambezi River, complete with warthogs, meerkats and a local hippo named Sebastian!”

Read the rest of Barbara’s review here: African Adventure Extraordinaire. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

colmar france at night


Population: 66 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: S’il vous plait (please)

Fun Fact: When the Nazis occupied Paris during WWII, the French resistance cut the cables of the elevators in the Eiffel Tower so that Hitler would have to climb the stairs (some 1,500 of them!) if he wanted to get to the top.

We Recommend: Capture the City of Lights with a Paris photography tour.

12 Best France Experiences

Have you been to France? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 29, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Danny Gonzalez, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from French Polynesia. Danny has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.

My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.

svalbard polar bear


I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.

Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

HITS
Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.

svalbard reindeer


Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.

Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.

MISSES
Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.

svalbard hike


Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Are you interested in traveling to Svalbard?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this funny travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item.

goats in tree morocco


To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, June 28, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption next week. Remember, keep it clean; please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Bryan Harris, who submitted our favorite caption: “Mike? Are you sure you saw a snake?” Bryan has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

atacama desert chile


Population: 17.4 million

Currency: Chilean peso

Phrase to Know: Habla ingles? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: Chile was the final country in the Western Hemisphere to make divorce legal (back in 2004). The divorce rate here is still extremely low — just 3 percent, as compared to 53 percent in the U.S., according to Business Insider.

We Recommend: Head to the small town of Curarrehue, where you can weave with local Mapuche women.

10 Best Chile Experiences

Have you been to Chile? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

koutoubia mosque marrakesh


Population: 33 million

Currency: Moroccan dirham

Phrase to Know: Shukran (thank you)

Fun Fact: Numerous films have been shot (at least in part) in Morocco, including “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Gladiator,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Black Hawk Down.”

We Recommend: Visit Fez to enjoy foodie experiences such as cooking tagine with a local family or visiting an artisan fromagerie to taste organic cheeses.

11 Best Morocco Experiences

Have you been to Morocco? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every so often I wander over to Vimeo, a video-sharing site that’s one of my favorite sources for travel inspiration. I know that every time I visit I’ll find myself drooling over films from exotic locations around the world.

One of my latest discoveries is this poignant look at Myanmar (Burma), which captures fishermen rowing their boats, children at play and other scenes of everyday life:



Next we head to Istanbul, where this filmmaker lovingly zooms in on the city’s mosques, mosaics and minarets:



Ever wondered what it might be like to swim with jellyfish? You can try it at Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, where the creatures do sting, but not powerfully enough to harm humans. The resulting footage is mesmerizing:



Finally, here’s an intriguing look at Egypt from a filmmaker who wanted to counter some of the negative media coverage the Middle East’s gotten over the past few years:



Okay, I’m ready to plan my next trip. How about you?

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

— written by Sarah Schlichter