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

french polynesia overwater bungalow sunrise


Population: 280,000

Currency: French Pacific franc

Phrase to Know: Ia orana (hello)

Fun Fact: If you spot a local wearing a tiare flower behind his or her ear, check out which side it’s on; wearing it on the left means you’re taken, while a flower on the right means you’re seeking a mate.

We Recommend: Learn to perform the heiva, a traditional hip-swinging local dance. You can take classes at the Ori Tahiti International School of Tahitian Dance.

10 Best French Polynesia Experiences

Have you been to French Polynesia? What was your favorite spot?

– 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!

mount roraimaIn this month’s featured review, reader Cami-sphere goes on a trekking adventure to the top of South America’s Mount Roraima. “The plan today was to start out early to explore the summit closer to camp rather than hike to Triple Point where Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet,” writes Cami-sphere. “As we headed to the scenic point, Marco identified indigenous plants and he walked us through an area where small quartz crystals lined the path. He also introduced us to a baby black toad he had spotted in one of the plants. Along the way, we greeted other trekkers with ‘Feliz Ano Nuevo.’ It was New Year’s Day and we were all upbeat. As I walked I forgot what it took to get to this point and it came over me that this was a unique and very special experience — there’s probably nowhere else on earth like this!”

Read the rest of Cami-sphere’s review here: The Lost World of Mount Roraima. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

pivotal soft case gear bagOne of the biggest innovations in luggage over the past several years has been the development of spinner wheels — but now a company has come up with a spinner handle.

The Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag has a sturdy grip that doesn’t extend and retract the way most suitcase handles do; instead, it rotates 360 degrees so you can hang onto it at any angle that’s comfortable for your hand and wrist. (The idea is based on Perfect Pushup exercise grips.) To make up for the non-telescoping handle, the suitcase is taller and thinner than most: 36 inches high, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep.

I liked the idea of the pivoting handle, and I wasn’t alone — the bag won the Product Innovation Award at last year’s International Travel Goods Show. In practice, though, it wasn’t such a hit. When I filled up the suitcase and began walking around with it, the shortness of the handle meant the top of the bag banged into the back of my thigh with each step. I could avoid it by holding my arm out to the side, but the position felt unnatural and made the bag seem heavier.

To make sure it wasn’t just me, I took the bag for a spin around the office and let a few colleagues try it out. It turns out that your height (or perhaps your wingspan?) may determine how comfortable this suitcase is to walk with. The tallest person in our office — at 6’7″ — called the bag “the most comfortable suitcase I’ve ever used.” The other folks who were able to pull the bag smoothly were 6’0″ and 6’1″, respectively. But my less lanky colleagues, ranging from 5’0″ to 5’10”, ran into the same problem I did, with the bag hitting their legs as they walked. It seems that shorter arms and the shorter pivoting handle make for a bad combination.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

That issue aside, the bag has plenty of perks. There are three different external pockets, two on the sides and one on the front, where you can store items for quick access. Inside are even more options for compartmentalization, with two dividers that you can use to separate, say, shoes from sweaters and books from clothing. There are also three different sizes of flat zipper compartments.

The bag can be collapsed for easy storage, and while the wheels don’t spin, they are large and look durable enough to handle cobblestones or rougher terrain. The weight of the bag is reasonable at 10.7 pounds, and the length of the bag, as well as the duffel straps, mean it can be used as a sports gear bag between trips.

pivotal soft case gear bag handleOne possible concern: Most U.S. airlines limit checked baggage to a total of 62 inches (height + width + depth), and the bag fits just fine by that measure. But a few airline websites we checked, including those of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, specified a maximum height of 35.5 inches, which this bag would ever-so-slightly exceed.

The suitcase sells for $249.95 at PivotalGear.com and comes in six different colors.

Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) suitcase! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 12, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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

cinque terre italy


Population: 93 million

Currency: Dong

Phrase to Know: Ban co noi tieng Anh khong? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: Next time you add a pinch of pepper to a dish, think of Vietnam; it’s the world’s largest exporter of black pepper.

We Recommend: Have a taste of Vietnam’s imperial cuisine in Hue. Here kings in the 19th century commonly ate meals consisting of up to 300 tiny, exquisitely presented dishes. These days you can sample similar fare at restaurants in Hue, such as steamed rice-flour dumplings with dried shrimp and pork.

11 Best Vietnam Experiences

Have you been to Vietnam? 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, February 23, 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 Carolyn Douglas, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from the Marshall Islands. Carolyn has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This is the first post in our new Living Like a Local series, in which we interview expats about their experiences living abroad in destinations around the world.

ben lyonsBen Lyons is a licensed Captain who has served throughout the world on the bridge of cruise ships and expedition vessels. He is currently CEO of EYOS Expeditions, which arranges luxury expeditions to remote and wild regions on superyachts. He is living in Istanbul for 18 months while his wife fulfills an overseas rotation for her job.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?
A: How diverse Turkey can be. It is a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions. There are deeply conservative and religious neighborhoods, and yet only a few miles away you’ll encounter a scene as Western as any street in New York. Yet despite their varying backgrounds, they are all fiercely proud to be Turkish.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.

Learn More About Turkey:
Photos: 10 Best Turkey Experiences
Istanbul City Guide
Getting Around Turkey
Turkey Accommodations: Cave Hotels, Gulets and More

– interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

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

cinque terre italy


Population: 62 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: A presto (see you soon)

Fun Fact: What do thermometers, espresso machines and dentures have in common? They’re all believed to have been invented in Italy. One thing probably not invented in Italy: pizza — though the Italians have certainly perfected it. (Flatbread dishes have long been popular in Greece and parts of the Middle East.)

We Recommend: Why take the same old Venetian gondola ride every other tourist takes when you could learn to pole a gondola instead? Row Venice will teach you this traditional skill on your next visit to La Serenissima.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Have you been to Italy? 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.

blyde river canyon


Population: 48 million

Currency: Rand

Phrase to Know: Lekker (good/nice/pleasant)

Fun Fact: South Africa is one of the few countries on earth to have more than one capital city. In fact, it has three: Cape Town for legislative functions, Pretoria for executive responsibilities and Bloemfontein for the judiciary arm of the government.

We Recommend: If you love local crafts, you won’t want to miss the Midlands Meander, a 50-mile route through KwaZulu-Natal. Along the way you’ll meet artists who create everything from stained glass to windchimes.

10 Best South Africa Experiences

Have you been to South Africa? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tokyo skyline nightThe world’s largest city is also the world’s safest, according to a new report. Tokyo has been declared the winner in the 2015 edition of the Economist’s Safe Cities Index.

Right behind Japan’s capital were two other Asian cities, Singapore and Osaka, with European favorites Stockholm and Amsterdam rounding out the top five. The highest ranked U.S. city was New York at number 10. At the bottom of the barrel was Jakarta, Indonesia, coming in at number 50. Its overall safety score was just 53.71 out of 100 (as compared to Tokyo, which scored 85.63).

On hearing the word “safest,” you might picture a place where you’re unlikely to get pickpocketed or mugged, but this type of personal safety is only one of four broad categories measured in the study. The Economist is also looking out for your digital security — how common are cybercrime and identity theft? — as well as health safety (pollution, quality of hospitals) and infrastructure safety (roads, rails, pedestrian deaths).

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

A few interesting tidbits from the report:

Barcelona, long infamous for pickpockets, has taken steps to get safer; crime has dropped by 32 percent over the past three years.

– In a comparison of perception vs. reality, the study found that Americans tend to feel less safe than they really are (based on their cities’ rankings in the list), while locals in Middle Eastern cities such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not actually as secure as they feel.

– Safety is only one factor in determining the world’s best cities. After combining various indexes — including not just Safe Cities but also Liveability Rankings, Cost of Living and more — the Economist came up with a different winner: Toronto was voted the overall best place to live.

Essential Hotel Safety Tips

Which cities would you consider the most safe?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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

beach st john usvi


Population: 104,000

Currency: U.S. dollar

Phrase to Know: Callaloo (also spelled kallaloo), a dish made with leafy greens that you’ll see on menus throughout the Caribbean

Fun Fact: Unlike the rest of the United States, Virgin Islanders drive on the left side of the road.

We Recommend: Head to Water Island (a short ferry ride from St. Thomas) and watch a movie on the beach at Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill.

10 Best U.S. Virgin Island Experiences

Have you been to the U.S.V.I.? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter