Sitting at my desk in New Jersey with the temperature hovering just below the freezing point, it’s hard to believe that spring has arrived. But spring it is, and people around the world will soon be celebrating the season of renewal.
Spring is a perfect time to travel in many destinations. Not only will you find smaller crowds and possibly even pay less (since high tourist season in many places doesn’t start until summer), but you may also stumble upon unique cultural celebrations such as the ones below.
Here are a few spring festivals from around the world to watch out for if you’re ever in the neighborhood around the time of the spring equinox.
Las Fallas Festival: Valencia, Spain
A spring festival celebrating St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the origins of Las Fallas go back in time to the days when wooden lamps, called parots, were needed to light carpenters’ workshops during the winter. As spring — and St. Joseph’s Day (the patron saint of carpenters) — neared, workers ceremoniously burned the parots, which were no longer needed for light. Over the centuries, the ceremony evolved into a five-day celebration involving the creation and eventual burning of ninots: huge, colorful cardboard, wood, papier-mache and plaster statues. The ninots remain on display for five days until March 19, when at midnight they are all set aflame, except for one chosen by popular vote and then exhibited at a local museum with others from years past.
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences
Whuppity Scoorie: Lanark, Scotland
The arrival of spring is celebrating in the small town of Lanark, Scotland, on March 1 with the delightfully named Whuppity Scoorie. During this celebration, local children gather at sunrise and run around the local church three times, making noise and swirling paper balls on strings around their heads. After the third lap, the kids race to gather up coins thrown by local assemblymen. No one is quite sure how the ritual began; the first written descriptions date back to the late 19th century.
Junii Brasovului: Brasov, Romania
The “Youth of Brasov” festival is held on the Sunday after Eastern Orthodox Easter every year and involves seven groups of young men bedecked in Romanian folk costumes and uniforms riding colorfully decorated horses through the streets of the city. The parade also features traditional Romanian songs and dances, and culminates in each of the men throwing a scepter into the air to see who can hurl it the highest. The parade finally works its way up to a mountain field above the city where a community barbecue is held. The earliest written records of the ritual parade date back to 1728.
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Nowruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is also considered the beginning of the new year in the Persian calendar. It is a secular holiday of hope and rebirth, though its origins trace back to Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion of ancient Persia. It is celebrated in Iran, as well as Azerbaijan and most of the “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Rituals typically involve building bonfires to jump over them.
Also known as the festival of colors, Holi is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated annually as the spring equinox approaches. The ceremony represents the arrival of spring, the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. It is a happy occasion marked by singing, dancing and a free-for-all of color, where participants do their best to paint others with dry colored powders and colored water. Holi dates back as far as the fourth century, though it may in fact be older.
What spring celebrations do you know of around the world?
– written by Dori Saltzman
As cities like Boston continue to be slammed with record snowfall and freezing temperatures, we here at IndependentTraveler.com are daydreaming of warm-weather spring vacations to quench our thirst for sunnier, more exotic days ahead.
From last minute steals in Australia to safari splurges in Southern Africa, book these vacation deals soon to assuage the gloom of mid-winter and instead, look forward to a killer upcoming trip.
Luxury South Africa Safari
Why Go: Splurge on a safari in style with reduced pricing for late spring departures (May through June) and included internal flights when you book by May 31. This vacation is for lovers of animals and luxury alike. Victoria Falls is one of the world’s most remarkable natural attractions.
Learn More: Click here
Walking Tour of the Dalmatian Coast
Why Go: Soaking in the scenic Mediterranean coast is easily accomplished on a walking tour that offers local experiences such as lunch in a family-run tavern set in an olive grove. A mid-May departure offers enough time to plan, without too much time to wait.
Learn More: Click here
Nine Nights in Myanmar
Why Go: At a great price for a 10-day vacation ($1,995 per person), this adventure through the country of Myanmar is during a hot season, but tours are timed during cooler mornings and evenings. A combination of cultural sightseeing and free time allow for full immersion.
Learn More: Click here
Vancouver’s Remote Island Region
Why Go: Get to know one of Canada’s hidden wonders with a trip to Pacific Rim National Park along Vancouver Island’s west coast. Save 20 percent when you book by March for a trip this April or May. Explore rain forests, beaches and wildlife.
Learn More: Click here
Highlights of Southern Australia and Tasmania
Why Go: Australia can be pricey due to its distance from most of us, but these get-em-while-you-can deals blend culture, history, wildlife and even cuisine into intriguing vacation packages to lesser-traveled parts of Australia and Tasmania. Highlighted departures with low pricing range from May 1 through June 21.
Learn More: Click here
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– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 127 million
Currency: Japanese yen
Phrase to Know: Arigato (thank you)
Fun Fact: Japan was the first country to develop cube-shaped watermelons, which farmers mold into their distinctive shape by putting transparent boxes around the fruit as they’re growing. Square watermelons are easier to ship and fit better into Japanese refrigerators, which are often small.
We Recommend: Spend the night in a Buddhist temple on Mount Koya. By night you’ll enjoy vegetarian meals with the monks and sleep in simple tatami rooms; during the day you can explore an ancient cemetery and visit a rock garden.
12 Best Japan Experiences
Have you been to Japan? What was your favorite spot?
– 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
It’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.
If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.
Learn More About the Day of the Dead
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
After recently spending a week at the home of a family friend in Grenada, I was a bit surprised to find that I had taken a vacation in the Caribbean and come back with not only a wicked tan, but also an education. An island in the West Indies, Grenada is a bit of a palimpsest, with traces of British and French roots visible in rusted fleur-de-lis fencing and cannons from another era. Although every country (no matter how small) can claim its own culture, Grenada stood apart with such a distinct identity that I’ll never make the mistake of confusing it for “just another island in the Caribbean” again. Here are five reasons the Spice Island left such an impression.
Grenada has won the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show 10 times, and when you step foot on the island you’ll immediately see why. Look left, look right, and spot countless species of blooms and trees crowding the landscape. Nature trails run in conjunction with numerous waterfalls, providing harmony among the elements and also convenient flower-gazing under a single entrance fee. Particularly pretty is Annandale Falls, where this photo was taken. Seven Sisters Falls, one of the top-ranked attractions in Grenada, is located within Grand Etang National Park, a rain forest preserve located high up in the island’s interior.
A nickname like the Spice Isle comes with a reputation, and it holds up. Enjoy the flavors of Grenada’s famous nutmeg, cocoa and cinnamon in dishes prepared across the island (or sprinkled in rum punch). Take advantage of the variety of fresh fruit — and juice — while you are there (packing mangoes wrapped in your dirty laundry is frowned upon by the TSA) and experiment with your tastebuds by trying flavors like golden apple, tamarind, soursop and even sea moss. Spice up your knowledge by talking to vendors about which products — jams, jellies, syrups and powder — come from which part of the nutmeg (yes, there are multiple parts!). Look also for popular treats like chocolate tea and homemade ice cream.
Learn the real story behind the American invasion of Grenada, see the ruins of gorgeous cathedrals still devastated by Hurricane Ivan, snorkel for underwater statues inspired by Grenada’s slave trade and learn the story behind the tragic Leaper’s Hill (which includes the final resting place of the first known patient of sickle cell anemia). The assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop (whose name was given to the international airport) took place in recent history — 31 years ago this past Sunday (October 19) and the bullet holes can still be seen in the deteriorating Fort George. The island’s history is rich, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand the pivotal events that have shaped it.
Take a Dip
Grand Anse may be the island’s best-known stretch of sand, but anywhere that seems safe for a swim is fair game in Grenada. From local favorite Bathway Beach, which has views resembling a Caribbean-style Cliffs of Moher, to the hideaway of Petit Anse, just behind a hotel’s bar and restaurant, it’s not difficult to find your own secret beach (and the water is typically warm and ripe for swimming). Particularly picturesque is Carriacou, a neighboring island just a ferry ride away. Aptly named, Paradise Beach is a bumpy taxi ride down back roads, but offers almost total seclusion and a view that makes it difficult to catch the 3:30 ferry back to Grenada.
A place can be the most scenic, culturally significant, accommodating destination with haute cuisine and diversions for every day of the week, but for me, it always comes down to the people. In Grenada they were friendly, welcoming and eager to show us their island (or to sing us a tune). I had the great opportunity to live locally and to stay with a family, but ventured out on my own using local buses and a little direction. It’s always slightly unsettling exploring somewhere new for the first time and learning your boundaries, but by the fish fry in Gouyave on our last night, when we ran into practically everyone we met on the entire trip there, the sense of pride and community wasn’t just obvious — it was infectious.
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– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Next Tuesday marks the first official day of fall. As we mentally prepare for the autumnal equinox and the many glorious accouterments that come along with it — pumpkin spice everything — we’re bringing you our suggestions for some of the best places to enjoy the brilliant colors abroad. Read on for our picks.
Tuscany, Italy: Tuscany is romantic enough on its own, but when you throw in jaw-dropping colors (mid-September and October) and the crisp chill of fall, it’s a great place for anyone hoping to relax — particularly with a nice glass of wine.
11 Best Italy Experiences
Honshu, Japan: During November and December, this island bursts with fall colors, particularly in Kyoto, where fiery leaf hues surround local temples and koyo celebrations abound.
12 Best Japan Experiences
Nova Scotia, Canada: September and October are key months for this leaf-peeping destination. Set against picturesque lakes, the leaves there offer a worthwhile experience for travelers seeking an autumn respite closer to home.
11 Best Canada Experiences
Bavaria, Germany: Couple bright, leafy landscapes with grand castles and mountain backdrops, and you’ve got a recipe for stunning autumn views. The best time to catch them is in October.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
On a recent trip to Norway, a member of the country’s tourism bureau told me that the number of U.S. visitors to Norway increased by about 40 percent in 2014 due to “Frozen.” That’s right — an animated Disney blockbuster for children boosted the number of travelers to the region by nearly half. That got us thinking about other movies that have spurred visits from loyal fans and, in some cases, even tours that feature the places where the actual filming took place. Read on for a list of some of the most notable ones.
Set in the Norwegian fjords, this story takes Anna, a princess, on a journey to find her sister with the help of a snowman. It sounds quirky, but Disney is now offering official “Adventures by Disney” tours of the region, which include stops in Bergen (on which Arendelle, the movie’s fictional setting, is based), as well as activities like rafting, hiking, fishing, dancing and fjord exploration.
“The Lord of the Rings” (New Zealand)
This famous fantasy series, shot entirely in New Zealand, had many filming locations within the country, including Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Fiordland, among others. Several companies like Lord of the Rings Tours offer guided excursions to various places seen in the movies, but you can also easily organize your own tour with the help of New Zealand Tourism’s resources.
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“Anne of Green Gables” (Canada)
The classic novels and their made-for-TV counterparts still draw lots of visitors each year to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada. While there, you can get a feel for the place Anne called home and even tour Green Gables, the house that was used in the TV/film series; it has been decorated to look just like what you’ve imagined from the books.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” (Japan)
Set in Kyoto, Japan, a “Memoirs of a Geisha” tour — like this one offered by Japan for You — will take you to several of the movie’s shooting locations and expose you to Japanese food and culture through performances and trips to shrines, restaurants and tearooms. You’ll also have some free time to explore on your own.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Greenland is the world’s largest island, but it’s also one of the most remote, with most of its 836,000 square miles buried under a massive layer of ice all year round. Exploring Greenland requires warm clothing and a sense of adventure. You’ll also need a bit of extra money; because roads don’t connect the isolated towns and villages here, your only transportation options are expensive flights and ferries.
The most convenient choice is to visit Greenland by cruise ship. That’s what I did on a recent trip aboard the Fram, a 256-passenger expedition vessel run by the Norway-based Hurtigruten line. I chose the “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, one of several summer sailings from Hurtigruten. (Another itinerary later this summer includes the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.)
During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience in Greenland. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.
The Itinerary: The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.
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Local Experiences: In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language, but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.
Enrichment: Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.
Staff: From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.
Missed Calls: We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) It was a reminder that expedition cruises to remote parts of the world always come with a little unpredictability. Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.
Buffet Meals: Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)
Internet Access: During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed. Of course, not everyone wants to get online during their vacation, but if you do, for now you’ll have to rely on your phone or be out of touch completely.
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– written by Sarah Schlichter
A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.
Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.
I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.
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Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.
Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.
Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.
Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.
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By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.
– written by Amanda Geronikos